Updated: Nov 2, 2020
I've tried and owned a great deal of recovery accessories. There are TONS of products out there designed to keep you healthy! Some are incredible and some are duds. I've ranked the ones I consider the most useful, from "absolute must-have" through "pricy, but may be helpful for some."
I have purchased all of these products with my own money (usually at a discount), or been given them by individuals unaffiliated with the companies. No products were provided by companies, or on condition of a review.
Lacrosse Ball, Baseball and Softball
Easy to find, and cheap! These are all amazing tools for releasing various tight muscles. Try the lacrosse ball on your glutes and other hip external rotators, and the baseball or softball for your psoas! You can also duct-tape two lacrosse or tennis balls together to make a roller for your thoracic spine–another common trouble spot for modern humans! See this post for some basic mobility work.
Hip Halo (or other Bands)
These are the go-to for strengthening, especially in the frontal plane! Try some of the Myrtl routine with a band, and add some Monster Walks in various angles of squat. You can get the Hip Halo at Rogue Fitness. I'd recommend the red version for most athletes. I got the blue version because it was on sale, and I can use it, but for fewer reps. (Though it's perfect for Monster Walks).
These are used for Instrument-Assisted Soft-Tissue Mobilization (Graston). You don't need one of the expensive brands; there are great versions around the internet in the $25-40 range that work great. In a pinch, you can even use a spoon, preferably one of nice quality with a rounded edge. Slap on some olive or coconut oil, or your favorite recovery balm, and scrape gently. This can do great things for soreness in the lower legs, and toe flexors especially, but can also help achilles and plantar fascia soreness. Go slow and light at first just for a few minutes. More details here.
This is a unique one, but can be really helpful. It combines compression, tension and movement all at once; while other tools only offer one or two. simply wrap the band with the little balls on your sore muscles, and then do some mobility work with it on. Don’t leave it on for more than two minutes! It’s not the most comfortable treatment, but it can definitely help. Get one here.
Do you get sore feet and lower legs? You can strengthen your toe flexors, posterior tib and more with this tool. Don't underestimate it's power... start off with a small dose! You can buy the ToePro here.
This is a little more expensive, but also does a great deal to strengthen the feet and lower legs. It works differently than the Toe Pro, and strengthens muscles in a different way. It will get you to finally use that big toe for stability and push off! Get one here.
Roll Recovery R8
Do you struggle with making time to foam roll? Travel a lot and can't take too many tools with you? Have obnoxious pets that won't leave you alone when you're trying to roll? This is a pricy tool, but can be SO helpful. You can now pack it in a briefcase or carry-on with ease, roll while watching TV on the couch, chatting with your family, etc. I've found it particularly helpful for the sides of the lower legs! I take this to every race I run, and when people experience it for the first time, it’s almost always met with “WOW….aghhhh ow ow I didn’t know I was even sore!” Get one here or at your local run specialty store.
Accumobility Flat-Bottom Ball
Lacrosse balls are a wonderful tool for under $5, but they roll around on you, and it's hard to allow movement in the muscle while keeping the ball still. Enter the Accumobility ball. It has a flat base, and is a bit taller than a lacrosse ball, with a similar diameter to the "ball" portion. Now you can easily put your affected muscle through it's range of motion for better release. I'd recommend the "Level 2" ball unless you are too sore for a lacrosse ball. Get one at Rogue Fitness, or cut off a short length of PVC pipe to put your lacrosse ball in.
While there is research to support the beneficial use of vibration while rolling, we're definitely getting into the realm of the Vibrating balls and rollers, as opposed to lacrosse balls and regular foam rollers, can sometimes encourage muscles to release and relax a bit more. Examples include the Hypersphere and Hypersphere Mini (I'd recommend the mini size; around baseball size), and the TimTam Polish Light. The TimTam version includes heat which can be extra helpful, but isn't quite as nice a product overall.
Now we're getting pricy! These can be really helpful for people training hard, and you'll occasionally see physical therapists use them, but you'll definitely pay for it. Examples include the TimTam, Theragun, Hypervolt and about a million knockoffs you've probably seen Facebook Ads for. If you're going to spend the money I would do one of two things.
A. Make your own with a brushless jigsaw. It's easy to do, and will save you several hundred dollars. You can use some creativity to come up with different tips, and best of all, batteries will be easy to come by if you choose a brand-name tool company. You'll pay less than $100 total, and it’ll be easier to find replacement batteries, etc. Plus, in a pinch, you’ve got yourself a jigsaw!
B. Buy a name brand. Some brands offer refurbished models (TheraGun refurbs here), or you can sometimes find them used. Hypervolt is otherwise the best bang for the buck. TimTam offers heat (as well as an aftermarket heated tip for other brands), but suffers from significant quality control issues and I can’t recommend them at that price point.
I'd consider these a helpful tool, especially if you can make your own or find a refurbished or used model!
Electronic Muscle Stimulators
It sounds painful, but it's not! At least, not when you use it for recovery. These muscle stimulators attach electrodes to certain spots on your muscles, and send small electric signals to contract the muscles, bypassing the brain altogether. You may be familiar with TENS (transcutaneous electronic nerve stimulation), and while this looks similar, it's quite different, as it affects the muscles, not the nerves.
This process of activating your muscles without your brain enables you to have active recovery while sitting on the couch. Read more about why you want you muscles "working" to accelerate recovery.
These work really well, and I’d particularly recommend them for multi-day events. They’re fairly light and the battery lasts through many treatments. I’d say you could probably even justify carrying them on a 5+ day self-supported adventure. If you’re sleeping in the backcountry, making sure your legs are flushed out can really help.
You can also use these stimulators to improve muscle recruitment and strength, usually while working out. I haven't used them for this purpose, but a lot of people do! Compex is likely the most well-known brand, but there are others.
Air Compression Devices
I'm sure you've seen these and balked at the price. Normatec is likely the most well-known, and is also the most expensive, at over $1200! Gulp! These are essentially medical devices originally designed for patients with conditions such as lymphedema. You're certainly paying less than those patients' insurance companies, but these are still expensive products. That said, as medical devices, or at least slightly weaker versions of the same design, they do work at assisting drainage of lymph from your legs. Do they work better than active recovery, such as an evening walk or easy bike spin after a workout with a good cooldown in the morning? Maybe... but at this price point, they're probably most suited for people who don't have the time or inclination to do that, and would rather wear these leg sleeves while relaxing with their family on the couch. If that's you, go for it! They'll probably help!
That said, there are other options! First, you could knock $300 off the price with the Rapid Reboot brand. I see a lot of people using them, but they do not offer much in the way of details about the product on their site. I'd hesitate to recommend anyone going with Rapid Reboot over Normatec. If you're paying $1,000, just splurge for the Normatec. From what I can tell, it's hands-down a better product, and includes a battery so you don't have to be near an outlet.
Second, you could go with Air Relax for $545. You can also find these on eBay for much cheaper. I picked up an Air Relax with some lucky timing for about 75% off. From what I can tell, the Air Relax is the best bang for the buck. It's much more than 80% the product of the Normatec. It doesn't include a battery, but I ran it off the smallest inverter you can buy for your car with no issues, and the engine did not run for an entire treatment session. (I have a hybrid). In addition, it offers higher pressure than the Normatec, which I found a bit more helpful. (I've used Normatec several times at race Expos).
Bottom line: if you can find a model cheap, or have money to spend, these can be a helpful tool. If you have a family and want to get a recovery boost while hanging out with them, these can help. If you work from home and want to flush out the legs while getting some work done, these are a great tool. They're not a must-have though!
There are a lot of products out there designed to improve recovery. You could easily spend several thousands of dollars on recovery. If you have unlimited budget, the above devices can certainly help a bit. Are they worth the money? That varies, and only you can decide that. Hopefully I've given you a little information to help with that decision. If you'd like more, feel free to leave a comment or send me an email!
If you are on a budget, start at the top if the list with the essentials. If you have a bit more trouble, the most 'bang for the buck' device on the pricy side of things, in my opinion would be a percussion massager.
The most important thing is whatever you have or buy... USE IT! Use it daily, not just when something hurts. If you do, you may just prevent it from hurting in the first place.
Happy running and recovery!
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