In recent years, recovery has become synonymous with high-tech tools and expensive services. Between the fancy foam rollers and percussive massage guns, infrared saunas and all-in-one centers, it seems like our bodies require a big price tag to heal. And as the industry—plus my own collection—proves, the willingness to spend small fortunes on recovery is real and rising.
But somewhere amid the blinking lights, temperature controls, and vibration settings, we’ve lost sight of something essential: Our bodies are the healers here. The gadgets are just aids (some of them more gimmicky than others). And fortunately for our wallets, nudging certain areas in the right direction doesn’t have to break the bank.
As Blake Russell, Olympic marathoner and the owner of On Track Physical Therapy and Performance, wrote in an Instagram post, “There are lots of mobility and trigger point products out there on the market, but you don’t have to buy the latest expensive thing.” Sometimes your own home or the nearest sports store has just what you need, at a fraction of the cost. Beyond the classic rolling-pin-as-foam-roller and frozen-peas-as-ice-pack hacks, several other household items make surprisingly effective recovery aids.
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Here are some common multitaskers that I and other runners use to promote recovery:
Olympian Blake Russell: Lacrosse Ball for Trigger Point
The top American finisher in the 2008 Olympic Marathon, Blake Russell is now a physical therapist; the combination makes her an expert in injury prevention and management. Sometimes her most effective strategies are the simplest ones—like a lacrosse ball for trigger point on muscles in need of attention.
For her calves, Russell first rolls the whole back side of her lower leg on a lacrosse ball, then returns to tender areas for holds of about 45 seconds. She practices deep breathing as she goes and uses the opposite leg for added pressure when needed. For her pectoralis minor, a small muscle important in head, neck, and shoulder positioning, Russell leans against a wall with a lacrosse ball just beneath her collar bone and toward her shoulder. When she lands on a tender spot, she stays for four to five deep breath cycles, and then repeats on other areas in the anterior shoulder compartment. Finally, Russell uses a lacrosse ball for regular gluteal work too: “Hurts so good!”
Masters Runner Nicole L’Etoile: Car Buffer as Vibration Tool
A few times a week, for five to 10 minutes following a run, L’Etoile goes to town on sore muscles with her buffer. She mostly uses it on her quads and IT band, and either wears pants or places a thin towel on her skin to prevent irritation.
Pro Track Runner Sara Sutherland: Robe Belt for Stretching
Stretching is an essential part of most running regimens, including that of 4:06 1500-meter runner Sara Sutherland. She’s been a big fan of postrun active isolated flexibility (aka rope stretching) since college, but sometimes misplaces her rope or travels without it. Her trusted recovery tool hack? Using the removable waistband of a robe instead.
Remove the belt from a robe, or grab a jump rope, flat bike tube, belt, or rolled up towel. Lying on the ground and holding both ends of the cord with your hands, guide your legs through your preferred stretching sequence (such as the Whartons’ Active Isolated Stretching routine).
Rather than purchasing a dedicated stretching strap (such as the Stretch Out Strap for $16), find items you already own that can get the same job done.
Runner/Cyclocross Racer Chelsea Bolton: Butter Knife as Muscle Scraper
Although muscle scraping (Gua sha) has been an Eastern medicine staple for centuries, it’s only recently begun to catch on the West. Chelsea Bolton, a collegiate runner-turned-marathoner who also dabbles in cyclocross, is one of the technique’s many proponents—especially since discovering that a butter knife works as a makeshift scraper.
Using the smooth edge of a butter knife, Bolton scrapes down her sore Achilles, from the back of her heel toward her toes. When she lands on a sensitive area, she continues to scrape down that region until she feels some relief. You can do the same on other body parts, too, from calves and quads to shoulders and forearms.
Before committing to a set of Graston tools ($260) or other Gua sha-inspired scrapers (which start around $15 and go much higher), start with what you have: a spoon, a butter knife, or even a shrimp deveiner.
Pro Marathoner Becky Wade: Sous-Vide + Bucket as Lower Leg Spa
My one positive takeaway from a recent calf injury was discovering that a sous-vide cooker and a plastic bucket make an ideal lower leg spa. Rather than wasting a full bath tub of water or driving 15 minutes to a hot tub, repurposing one of my favorite kitchen gadgets has become my go-to way to heat up before a run.
About half an hour before I want to start heating, I fill a 5-gallon bucket with water, attach my sous-vide cooker to the side, and set it to 45° C / 113° F. A cooler or any other large vessel will work in lieu of a bucket. Once the water’s hot, I submerge my lower leg for 10 to 15 minutes, and then head straight out to run. During times like this fall, when I knew I’d be heating my calf a few times a day, I left the water in the bucket so I could heat at a moment’s notice.
Marathoner Emilia Benton: Frozen Water Bottle as Foot Roller
An unfortunate bout of plantar fasciitis brought out the resourcefulness in Emilia Benton, a ten-time marathoner based in Houston, Texas. She found that a frozen water bottle works as well as most cold foot rollers on the market—and is essentially free.
Fill a plastic bottle with water, leaving about an inch on top to prevent bursting, and stick it in the freezer. When that plantar flares up, it’s ready to roll. Benton uses it for five to 10 minutes at a time and finds it to be an effective pain reliever. As an alternative, other runners swear by frozen golf balls.
When these multitaskers and other recovery tools don't work, and soreness or pain lingers past a normal amount of time (a week or so), your best move is to consult an expert. No matter how much they cost, tools can go only so far, after all, and a physical therapist, chiropractor, sports masseuse, or physician can help steer you toward a diagnosis and an individualized recovery plan.