The Runner’s Essential Toolkit
You’re on your third mile and feeling pretty darn great on your morning run. You crest this ginormous hill and feel a rush on your descent when ouch—is that a sharp pain in your calf muscle? Why do your arches feel like they’re being stabbed before every run? And why is that searing pain in your thighs from last Tuesday still so prominent?
As with all sports, running isn’t always experienced pain- or injury-free. Luckily, it’s easy to invest in some supplies to soften and smooth out kinks—the kind of items that, let’s be honest, look somewhat like torture devices to the uninitiated. Or, you can search through your garage and kitchen cabinets for some makeshift runner tools to get you back on your feet. Shoe store owner Eric Sach, physical therapist and acupuncturist Russell Stram and Brooks Running pro athletes recommend picking items you can find at home to aid recovery and prevent injury. Here are a few that they agree should be in every runner’s toolkit.
Tool: Foam Roller/R8 Roller/The Stick
Replacements: water bottle, wine bottle, rolling pin
Targets: thighs, calves
Helps: mild cases of adductor strain, calf spasms, Achilles tendonitis
Are you a foam roller-less vino lover? Not a problem. Eric Sach, owner of The Balanced Athlete in Renton, Wash., suggests using a wine bottle as a stand-in. “Add warm water, tighten the cork or cap and you have a mini foam roller,” Sach says. “The warmth helps to penetrate deeper into muscles than a traditional foam roller.” Just remember to finish the wine before transforming the bottle!
Another popular runner tool is The Stick, which can cost anywhere between $25 and $40. “I often recommend people just use a rolling pin,” says Russell Stram, a physical therapist at the Runner Clinic NYC. “A rolling pin is ideal to use on a sensitive area, such as the inner thigh muscle and inner calves.”
Tool: Massage Ball
Replacements: water bottle, softball, tennis ball or lacrosse ball
Targets: foot arches, outer thigh, glutes
Helps: plantar fasciitis, tibialis posterior tendonitis, ITB syndrome
“One homemade tool I use is just a normal plastic water bottle filled with water,” says pro runner and Brooks Beast Baylee Mires. Mires places a bottle of water in the freezer and then takes it out to roll under her foot for arch relief.
For a deeper massage, try using a rubber ball. It’s possible to buy branded massage balls for $15 or $20, but any sports ball will do. “The outer thighs are quite resilient and can take a lot more pressure,” Stram says. Find the tightest spot on the side of the thigh and roll the ball side to side instead of up and down. “This is a nice treatment for iliotibial band syndrome,” he says.
Brooks Beast Hannah Fields favors a lacrosse ball to roll out her hips and glutes. “[It’s] great for loosening up after a long travel day where I’ve had to sit for long periods of time,” she says. “The lacrosse ball can also target acute areas in the shoulders and back.”
Using the ball for a deep acupressure massage under your foot while standing also has its perks. “This is helpful to soften the fascial tissue at the arch and potentially limit plantar fasciitis,” Stram says. “When done at the inner side of the arch, it can also help alleviate some symptoms of tibialis posterior tendonitis.”
Tool: Stretch Strap, Resistance Band
Replacements: towel, belt
Targets: foot arches, calves, hamstrings
Helps: plantar fasciitis, sore soleus muscles
Runners are often lax when it comes to stretching. Just taking five minutes of your day, however, has its benefits and can even guard against injury. Stretch and resistance bands cost roughly $7 to $15, but runners can forego these entirely by replacing them with a towel or belt.
According to Sach, using these items will help lengthen the soleus muscles in your calves. He advises doing this stretch twice a day: Start by sitting on the floor with your legs in front of you. With your shoes on, put the towel or strap near the ball of your foot and give it a two-second pull. Do this 20 times on each foot.
Tool: Cupping Set
Replacement: kitchen sink plunger
Targets: knees, thighs
Helps: chondromalacia patella, ITB syndrome
Besides acupuncture, Stram offers cupping therapy at the Runner Clinic, as well. While you can try your hand at cupping by buying a silicone set that’s priced roughly at $20, Stram says a common kitchen sink plunger will do the trick. “When used to gently pull over the knee cap, it can be a useful treatment for chondromalacia patella [runner’s knee],” Stram explains. When used on the side of the thigh, a plunger can also help relieve iliotibial band tension.