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You’re on your third mile and feeling pretty darn great on your morning vacation run. You crest a considerable-sized 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. But if you’re on vacation and need relief, these makeshift runner recovery tools can get you back on your feet.
4 Essential Recovery Tool Swaps
We spoke with shoe store owner Eric Sach, physical therapist and acupuncturist Russell Stram, and even some pro athletes to find everyday home items that can aid recovery and prevent injury. Here are a few that they agree should be in every runner’s recovery toolkit.
Recovery Tool: Foam Roller/R8 Roller/The Stick
These traditional recovery tools essentially perform a soft tissue massage. Studies have shown that rolling out muscles can improve range of motion as well as decrease tissue tension.
Are you a foam roller-less vino lover? Not a problem. Eric Sach, former shoe store owner, 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.
A water bottle is also a great option as you are likely to have one with you when you’re out and about. Some reusable water bottles have even been designed as mini foam rollers.
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. “A rolling pin is ideal to use on a sensitive area, such as the inner thigh muscle and inner calves.”
Replacements: water bottle, wine bottle, rolling pin
Targets: thighs, calves
Helps: mild cases of adductor strain, calf spasms, Achilles tendonitis
Recovery Tool: Massage Ball
Massage balls are a great recovery tool for targeting really specific areas of the body, and they are also incredibly easy to swap out with household items if you don’t have one.
“One homemade tool I use is just a normal plastic water bottle filled with water,” says Dark Sky Distance Runner 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.
Middle-distance runner 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.”
Replacements: water bottle, softball, tennis ball, or lacrosse ball
Targets: foot arches, outer thigh, glutes
Helps: plantar fasciitis, tibialis posterior tendonitis, IT Band syndrome
RELATED: How to Treat IT Band Syndrome
Recovery Tool: Stretch Strap, Resistance Band
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.
Replacements: towel, belt
Targets: foot arches, calves, hamstrings
Helps: plantar fasciitis, sore soleus muscles
Recovery Tool: Cupping Set
Besides acupuncture, Stram offers cupping therapy in his practice, 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.
Replacement: kitchen sink plunger
Targets: knees, thighs
Helps: Runner’s knee, IT Band syndrome