Sports Medicine Holiday List

Stay the CourseHappy Holidays, iRunFar readers!

As a physical therapist, I get a lot of ‘gear’ questions: about shoes, but also about myriad gear, braces, contraptions, and other sports-medicine items designed to help treat or prevent injury.

The downside to the holiday season is the commercial element, where people exchange pricey consumer goods that ultimately get little use, and nowhere is this more prevalent than with sports-medicine products. There are thousands of cure-all products out there, many of which ultimately wind up as expensive tree ornaments.

Since Christmas is nearly here, I thought I would put out my own Sports Medicine Christmas List for readers: a collection of items of true value that all runners should have. Some of these items are a little unconventional, yet all are relatively inexpensive and are of true utility for any runner.

Tennis Ball
A tennis ball makes a terrific massage tool for the foot. Most runners use a golf balls, which are very firm; or soft, spike-y massage balls, which are typically too soft and too irregular to sink into tissue. While it is too easy to over-work the foot and potentially bruise it with a golf ball, a tennis ball is the perfect size and firmness to effectively self-massage the foot.

Foam Roller
A foam roller or cylinder is a must-have for any runner. They come in a variety of sizes and densities, but all serve to self-massage tight and stiff muscles by using your own body weight on the roller. Most runners are familiar with foam rollers and use them for the calves and thighs, but foam rollers are also terrific for mobilizing stiff, winter-weary spines: side-to-side and up-and-down rolling can effectively mobilize both tight back and shoulder blade muscles, as well as stiff vertebrae and ribs.

Massage Stick
While not quite as effective as a foam roller, a self-massage stick is another must-have, especially if traveling. These, too, come in a variety of sizes and stiffness, and are most effective for the quadriceps and calves. But they can also be used for smaller areas, including the arms and the neck.

Baseball or Softball
The hamstring and gluteal muscles can be difficult to self-massage. The best tool I know to work these is a baseball or softball. It is larger and much stiffer than a tennis ball and can effectively sink into these big muscles. Rolling side-to-side, up-and-down, or simply sinking into the ball does a terrific job of self-massaging these big, stiff muscles. This is best done by sitting on the top of a staircase so the legs can be slightly flexed (down the stairs) while massaging.

Frozen Peas
Need an ice pack? Frozen peas are the best, most cost-effective cryotherapy tool out there. They come in various sizes, are inexpensive, and form well around a variety of body parts. But most importantly, frozen peas, when they thaw, won’t leak, and can be refrozen and used again and again.

Need a snack? You can still eat the peas when you’re done. (Or, at least I’ve done it, accidentally. I don’t recommend it. Stick to food-only peas, please.)

Compression Socks
With respect to recovery enhancement, research is equivocal about the efficacy of compression socks. However, what is clear is, if you have any swelling in your legs–be it from injury or a long run or race–compression hosiery speeds up that fluid reduction. Should you sprain a foot or ankle, or tweak a calf muscle, use compression socks to keep the swelling down.

Reusable Bandage
A reusable bandage wrap is a poor-man’s compression sock. It can be used to effectively wrap a sprained limb for both stability and swelling reduction. However, perhaps their best use is to firmly wrap those frozen peas (or other cryotherapy) to your body when icing.

Massage Gift Certificate
Self-mobilization of tight tissues is great to manage running stiffness, but it is no substitute for professional massage therapy. Ultramarathon runners can develop significant and deep myofascial stiffness that, at times, is impossible to self-massage or stretch away, especially after long races. A gift certificate to a skilled, licensed massage therapist is a great holiday gift for any runner to reset the body as you enter the new racing season. Ask around for the best, athlete-based massage practitioner out there.

Yoga Gift Certificate
There are few activities out there that effectively combine dynamic mobility and functional strength in a low-stress format like yoga. In addition to the flexibility and strength benefits, yoga is a terrific way to identify and improve any asymmetries in the running stride. I have personally been a yoga practitioner at this studio in Eugene for a year-and-a-half, having been introduced to the practice by another ultrarunner, Kelly Woodke. He teaches, and we both practice at a studio that offers a variety of both flexibility- and strength-based classes of all ability levels. Look around for a studio or practice near you with a variety of classes, and if you’re a bit unsure about where and what, look for studios and classes geared specifically toward runners or athletes.

Convict Conditioning
In the nearly-two-year history of this column, Stay the Course, I have yet to directly endorse a single product, until now. This book, Convict Conditioning, was recommended to me by a retiree-aged, former patient two years ago. Convict Conditioning is a body-weight-only, old-school, calisthenic-based exercise book that covers all major muscle groups: chest, shoulders, arms, hips, back, and abdominals. Each group has only a single exercise (push-ups for the chest, for example). Where the genius comes in is that each exercise has a master step (e.g., single-arm, full push-up), but with 10 progression exercises: each one must be completed in succession in order to progress to the next step.

But what really makes the book stand out is its emphasis on quality–of technique and speed–and on functional core stabilization and balance: concepts that are lacking (if not absent) in many modern strength regimes. Best of all, in my five-plus years of professional practice, I have yet to find a better, more robust exercise progression–through the 10-step plan–that allows for full-body core stabilization to develop. This is a critical health benefit of utmost importance for folks who like to challenge their bodies on incredibly varied terrain for hours at a time.

Heart Rate Monitor
Accurately assessing effort is one of the greatest challenges to ultra trail runners: varied trails, trail conditions, weather, and altitude make pace-based assessment unreliable. Add to that the normal life stressors–work, family, sleep, and nutrition–and you’ve got far too many variables to accurately assess your body’s dynamic ability to perform work.

Heart rate monitoring is the gold standard, and arguably the only way, to assess whole-body response to exercise. It is highly variable, as it should be: life stresses and fatigue greatly affect body response–and heart rate–to running, and this feedback must be heeded.

Heart rate monitors come in variety of types, features, and prices. Of all the technology out there for runners, I recommend this most strongly.

Runner Identification
Identification bracelets, necklaces, or leg bands have become increasingly popular, and nowhere is it more important than on the trail. Many of us train in remote areas and often alone. Do you carry any identifying information? If you and your runners don’t wish to carry your ID cards, consider a dedicated ID item that contains your name and phone number, as well as emergency contacts and any health issues or restrictions.

Training Log
With the advent and explosion of online and electronic text devices, it’s no small wonder that we even have books anymore. But we do: there’s something about having a tangible text to page through, and because of that, bound books aren’t likely going anywhere anytime soon.

Documenting your activity with a training log is critically important to measure, and later assess, your training and racing and how your body responds not only day to day, but year to year. And while there are myriad online options out there, there’s nothing quite like having that hard data in front of you. If you have an electronic record, you also run the risk of losing it all at the whim of a webmaster or self-destructive server. I, personally, have paper data that goes back to 1999. Leafing through those pages makes for good insights and great memories. Consider a paper log, if only to back up that critical–and nostalgic–history.

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The true value of any sports-medicine product is to help you manage your own body and the sustainability of training and racing. These items do just that: promoting smart, sustainable, and enjoyable running, true to the holiday spirit!

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and yours, from me and the rest of the iRunFar team!

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do you have some sort of training or recovery tool on your Christmas list this year? What is it?
Joe Uhan

is a physical therapist, coach, and ultrarunner in Eugene, Oregon. He is a Minnesota native and has been a competitive runner for over 20 years. He has a Master's Degree in Kinesiology, a Doctorate in Physical Therapy, and is a USATF Level II Certified Coach. Joe ran his first ultra at Autumn Leaves 50 Mile in October 2010, was 4th place at the 2015 USATF 100K Trail Championships (and 3rd in 2012), second at the 2014 Waldo 100K, and finished M9 at the 2012 Western States 100. Joe owns and operates Uhan Performance Physiotherapy in Eugene, Oregon, and offers online coaching and running analysis at uhanperformance.com.

There are 14 comments

  1. TimB_540

    I'm a big fan of the lacrosse/baseball. I carry a lacrosse ball in my gym bag, have another stashed in my desk drawer for after lunch break runs…I also have two of them taped together (electrical tape) in a peanut shape that does most of the work of a massage stick/foam roller in a more travel friendly size.

    1. sareuhdubayou

      I use a stick with a rubber end, I guess you could call it a walking stick or cane, that I got as a trade show freebie years ago. I use it to get at trigger points in my psoas. My husband always freaks out a bit when he sees me poking myself in the abdomen with a stick, but it works. Thanks for the convict conditioning recommendation. I'm moving to a rural area and the nearest gym is a 20 min drive away. I might not even join a gym now.

  2. @steveitano

    Instead of frozen peas, I've used a frozen 50/50 mix of rubbing alcohol and water in a vacuum sealer bag. It maintains a nice slushy consistency. If you use vodka instead, you can always drink it after.

  3. WriteJohnWrite

    Thanks for the article. I'm learning to take these tips more seriously as I deal with runner's knee (patellofemural syndrome). My self-administered PT involves strengthening the VMO and stretching the hams and quads. The foam roller is invaluable, but I like the whole softball idea. My tip? For cheapskates: the animal care aisle of your local farm store (like Farm & Fleet) usually has inexpensive reusable wraps (and other first-aid supplies).

  4. jacobgolden

    Great tips. And a plus one for Convict Conditioning! With so much commercial pdx style workout material out there this is a breath of fresh air with no b.s….along the same lines is Pushing the Limits by Al Kavadlo.

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