Every runner knows the feeling of sore muscles and aching joints that follow intense running workouts. This happens because running puts immense pressure on muscles, ligaments, joints, and soft tissue. In fact, according to sports medicine experts, every pound of weight you’re carrying equates to four pounds on the knee when running.
But running is also great exercise. To reap its benefits while mitigating its physical impact, every runner—from beginner to elite marathoner—should incorporate a solid recovery session after workouts. Luckily, there are many recovery tools that provide targeted relief.
In this article, we’ll discuss several such tools, including red light therapy, foam rollers and massage balls, recovery boots, and other free options.
An Overview of Popular Recovery Tools
A recovery tool is any device that helps repair muscle fiber, stimulates blood circulation around damaged areas, and restores the body’s natural state of rest. Here’s an overview of some of the most popular running recovery tools available:
- Red light therapy: These devices harness the healing power of red light to reduce inflammation and repair muscle at the cellular level.
- Foam rollers and massage balls: These tools encourage the release and relief of connective tissue known as fascia through self-myofascial release.
- Recovery boots: High-tech and with a hefty price tag, recovery boots encourage circulation in the legs to rid the body of toxins quickly, for a better recovery.
- Free tools: Supported by experts and 100 percent free, every runner should be using these.
Red Light Therapy Helps Runners By Targeting Inflammation
Inflammation is the body’s immune response to damage, and it’s often at the root of the delayed onset muscle soreness that runners experience. The impact and stress that running puts on your body results in inflammation, whether from damaged muscle tissue, inflamed joint tissue, or another affected area.
Even though inflammation is a natural part of healing, it can lead to numerous problems if it becomes chronic. These include chronic hip pain, bursitis, or a painful iliotibial (IT band), many of which will quickly put you on the sidelines.
One way to address inflammation is with red light therapy. Also called low-level light therapy (LLLT) or photobiomodulation (PBM), red light therapy uses concentrated wavelengths of light to heal at the cellular level. The term “red light therapy” applies to red light as well as near-infrared (NIR) light.
The wavelengths in the red light spectrum range from 630 nanometers (nm) to 660nm, and those in the NIR spectrum range from 800nm to 1100nm. Research has shown that the wavelengths most beneficial for healing (known as the therapeutic window) are between 620nm and 660nm (red), and between 810nm and 850nm (NIR).
Healing at the Cellular Level
Both red and NIR wavelengths penetrate the skin: red light to about 10mm; and NIR light to about 2 to 7 centimeters, which is deep enough to penetrate cartilage and even bone.
As the light penetrates cells, it stimulates their mitochondria, which are tiny organelles that convert nutrients into a high-energy molecule called adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Research has shown that the surge in ATP production yields many physiological benefits, such as a boost in collagen production, faster wound healing, and a reduction in inflammation.
By sitting in front of a red light therapy device for a few minutes after a run, you’re allowing red light to jump-start ATP production, which helps the body heal from inflammation faster.
In fact, a 2014 metastudy of 17 separate studies examined the effect of LLLT on skeletal muscle repair. The authors concluded that LLLT is an effective treatment for acute muscle injuries—including those caused by inflammation—and that it stimulates blood circulation, among other positive outcomes.
In short, red light therapy helps runners recover at the molecular level, so muscles can bounce back faster and inflammation is reduced. Read about one runner’s life-changing experience using red light therapy after a car accident in our article, Not the Usual Advice on How to Improve Running Speed.
Or, learn more about how to recover faster from running in more detail.
Self-myofascial Release (Foam Rollers and Massage Balls)
Self-myofascial release is an effective method of dealing with the aches and kinks that result from intense forms of exercise such as running. It focuses on the fascia, which is the thin casing of connective tissue that encompasses organs, blood vessels, bones, nerve fibers, and muscles, and helps keep them in place.
The repetitive motion and impact of running can cause the fascia to tighten up. This restricts the range of motion and puts pressure on the muscles, joints, and nerves, which in turn can cause pain. What’s needed is to release or stretch the fascia.
A 2015 metastudy published in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy found that self-myofascial release may be effective in enhancing joint range of motion as well as pre- and post-exercise muscle performance.
All you need are a few tools: namely, foam rollers and massage balls.
Donned by professional athletes and Olympians, recovery boots as muscle recovery tools, are a high-tech method of promoting blood flow for muscle recovery. The downside is the price: These boots cost upwards of $600. Also, the science behind them is a little mushy. Still, people swear by them, so it’s worth taking a look at how they work.
Also known as compression boots, recovery boots are boot-like devices that cover most of the leg. Once you put them on, the boots self-inflate and conform to your legs’ shape; then, they deliver pulsating waves of compressed air into the boot chambers, from the feet upward. This process is believed to promote blood flow to certain areas and help flush out metabolic waste (such as lactic acid) that builds up after running due to muscle damage and causes post-exercise soreness.
Other than donning the boots and turning them on, there’s little to do beyond relaxing during the session, which lasts about 15 to 30 minutes.
It sounds quite cool, but does it work? The evidence is mixed. In one study published in 2015 by researchers from Hamilton, New Zealand, “intermittent sequential pneumatic compression” performed with recovery boots on 10 male participants found no significant difference in blood lactate concentrations, nor in “total quality recovery” when compared to those who completed passive exercises.
Other studies have shown more promising results, like one published in 2017 by researchers from Alabama. The study found that the use of external pneumatic compression (EPC) on males who performed heavy back squat exercises had benefits. Specifically, the athletes who underwent EPC saw better flexibility and pressure-to-pain threshold (i.e., the point at which pressure hurts) than did those who used a sham treatment.
These studies did not assess the efficacy of recovery boots specifically on runners, but a number of running blogs discuss the pros and cons of these boots. One example is a December 2020 article in Runner’s World. Along with assessing a few studies, it notes that at-home use of recovery boots can be tricky. The average consumer might not fully understand how they work, whereas a trained physical or sports therapist would have a more nuanced understanding of how to use recovery boots.
If you decide to invest in a pair of recovery boots, here are a few that get high remarks:
- Normatec Dynamic Air Compression: considered the best on the market.
- Air Relax Leg Recovery System: less expensive than the Normatec but highly praised.
Let’s say you love to run, but you don’t have the funds to invest in running recovery essentials. Can you still build an optimal routine? Of course you can. In fact, the following tools and strategies are not only free; any runner would be foolish not to employ them.
You’re going to do it anyway—just make sure you get enough of it.
In an interview with Runner’s World, Trent Stellingwerff, the research and physiology leader at the Canadian Sport Institute, says: “Probably 90 to 95 percent of all recovery can be achieved by proper sleep and nutrition.”
Athletes at Nike’s Oregon project get about 10 to 12 hours of sleep per night, plus a nap. That’s impossible for most people, but you should aim for the recommended amount of seven to nine hours of sleep per day, especially if you’re running often.
Building off Stellingwerff’s advice, eating a nutritious diet is crucial. There’s endless advice on the Internet for runners looking for the perfect meal plans. Most of it encourages a balanced diet of whole foods with enough protein, carbohydrates, and fats to provide your body with the nutrients it needs to recover.
An article in Outside Magazine offers this advice: Use sports food products (gummies, gels, sports drinks) sparingly, and stick to real whole foods instead.
Drink more water! It’s that simple —drink water all day. Drink before a run, during a run, and after a run. If you plan to run for more than an hour, Brigham Health Hub recommends drinking fluids with some added carbs and electrolytes along the way.
Conversely, if you run while dehydrated, or fail to hydrate after your run, you’ll rob your body of the hydration it needs to recover properly.
Drain Your Legs
If you ran track or cross-country in high school, your coach probably had you lie on your back and raise your legs in the air after long runs. The point is to encourage upward blood flow and the dispersal of metabolic waste such as lactic acid— which can cause aches and pains if left to accumulate.
Getting in an inverted position helps accelerate the process, thanks to gravity. According to this article in Runner’s World, fifteen minutes of leg draining within 30 minutes of your run should do wonders.
Read our blog to learn how to get relief from hip pain after running.
Questionable Recovery Tools
There’s plenty of research out there about running recovery products, and some of it is surprising. While popular, two methods, in particular, have little scientific evidence in their favor: compression socks and e-stim machines.
If you’ve ever watched elite runners, you’ve probably seen them wearing compression socks; that is, tight socks that come up to the knee. Believed to prevent cramps and swelling, these socks limit excess movement of the calf muscles. The logic here is that the least amount of effort muscles exert, the less likely they are to tire out. And, the tightness of the socks is thought to prevent fluid build-up, which can lead to swollen post-run legs.
In this article, the experts at Road Runner Sports, a reputable running brand, discuss the efficacy of compression socks, noting that two out of three major studies failed to find any benefit to wearing them.
In an article published in Podiatry Today, podiatrist Doug Richie Jr. cites a few studies before concluding that these popular socks aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.
So why do people seem to love them? Maybe they like the way they feel on a run. Or, perhaps these socks do contribute to a better recovery. Like many sports products, the utility of compression socks seems to be a matter of personal preference. If they feel good while you’re running, and if you think they’re helping you recover, there’s no reason not to wear them.
What is an e-stim machine, and do you really need one? E-stim stands for electric stimulation, a practice employed by physical therapists for a range of purposes, including pain alleviation and athletic training.
Most runners gravitate toward e-stim devices called TENS machines. TENS is an acronym that means “transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation,” which is the stimulation of electricity passed through the skin between electrodes.
Electrodes are placed around trigger points, the machine is turned on, and the user experiences a slight warming sensation during sessions of about 10 to 15 minutes.
The idea is that the electrical stimulation helps relieve pain by triggering the release of endorphins and controlling the nerves around the pain point. Scientists have noted, however, that TENS machines are not actually repairing or healing muscles, joints, etc.—they are merely mitigating the experience of pain.
In this well-researched article that was published in March 2021, science writer and former massage therapist Paul Ingraham looks at 11 studies of TENS machines. Ingraham notes that most are either non-positive or vaguely positive; only one praises the method as being effective for chronic musculoskeletal pain.
Similarly, a January 2021 article in Healthline concludes that the research on TENS machines is mixed at best.
With TENS Machines going for $100 or more, it’s up to the user to determine if the cost is worth it.
Recovery Tools for Runners
There’s no doubt that runners need solid recovery plans they can commit to and afford. The questions each person should answer are: what works best, what feels best, and what’s worth the investment considering an individual’s fitness level, age, and goals.
Whether foam roller or ball, tools for self-myofascial release are relatively cheap, and they do a great job at relieving tight fascia for a better recovery. Compression socks are inexpensive as well, but the science is inconclusive as to whether they actually aid recovery.
Recovery boots are increasingly popular, but they require a significant investment for a product with underwhelming scientific evidence behind it. However, if you can afford them, there’s no reason not to buy a pair.
The same goes for a TENS machine: It requires an investment, and the science is unconvincing, yet it won’t inhibit your recovery, and it might even work for you.