My 5 Favorite Fitness Recovery Devices

The Go-To Gizmos That Get Me Back On The Trail

 Not all fitness recovery devices need to be expensive store-bought gizmos.

Not all fitness recovery devices need to be expensive store-bought gizmos.

As I get older, one life priority seems to resonate louder than any other: Injury Prevention. I spent my twenties poo-pooing stretching, had no clue what a rest day was, and generally pushed myself to the literal breaking point.

When I developed chronic tendinitis in my knee I didn't even know how to ease up in order to let it heal. After a decade of false starts I was able to begin an exercise regimen gradually enough to allow my atrophied body to slowly build strength and stamina without re-injuring myself. Now that I've reclaimed my athletic life, I'm much more capable of listening to my body. I'm also determined never to let my situation deteriorate to that level again. Preventive maintenance is my goal.

But when training hard, I’m not always able to heal up completely during my rest day. I’ve found that the vast majority of lingering pain stems from muscle and tendon overuse issues.  Some pains are caused from muscular imbalances and tightness, while other issues seem to just arise from simple repetitive stress. I’ve found that myofascial massage work seems to break up scar tissue from injuries, as well as the knots and adhesions from overuse allowing the muscles to move freely—an essential requirement to correcting imbalance. In the last two years I have become a fanatic in the church of self-massage and stretching. But all that body work can tire out fingers—and there are some places fingers can't reach. So on those days where I can hear my body pleading with me for extra TLC, I turn to the following five gadgets:

Back Buddy

 With a Back Buddy, you may be able to say good bye to your masseuse.

With a Back Buddy, you may be able to say good bye to your masseuse.

It may look like a Klingon sex toy, but this S-shaped hunk of plastic is the best $30 you can spend on Amazon. If you've ever tried to massage your own back, you may have noticed how difficult a task it is due to the fact that your arms are facing the wrong way. Enter the Back Buddy. The large curves allow you to reach around your own back and target your trigger points with the myriad of knobs and points. There is even a double knob feature for targeting your neck muscles on each side of your spine.  With a small amount of practice and 15 minutes of work each day you can almost completely eliminate your masseuse from your life. There are several variations to choose from and some bundles that include travel-size versions, trigger-point balls, and rollers. This is the model closest to the version that I own.

Fuzzy Dunlop

 Tennis balls make great massage balls, but they don't travel with me on trail since they're single purpose.

Tennis balls make great massage balls, but they don't travel with me on trail since they're single purpose.

Nothing more than a used tennis ball, and the cheapest item on my list, but it makes a perfect trigger point massage device for your back. Simply by lying on the ball so that it presses into your sore spots for a few minutes at a time will do wonders for your back. If your back is not ready for deep tissue work, start by using it on your mattress and work your way up to the floor. While Fuzzy Dunlop and the Back Buddy primarily both work your back, the tennis ball is a much more passive activity. I frequently lie on it before I fall asleep. It's perfect for those times when I'm feeling lazy.

Beastie Ball

 If the tennis ball no longer pushes your buttons, try upgrading to a Beastie Ball.

If the tennis ball no longer pushes your buttons, try upgrading to a Beastie Ball.

This is the advanced version of Monsieur Dunlop. Like a spherical Rumble Roller, the Beastie Ball is covered in spikey protrusions that are great for getting into the tiniest trigger points. The extra firm version of this has almost no give to it, and it is a great step up from a tennis ball once your back is tough enough for the intense pressure. I also find this to be ideal for loosening up my forearms after a day of climbing. It comes with a plastic base that can keep it from rolling around and also elevates it slightly making it easier to use on your hamstrings. I've also used this knobby monster to roll out my arches. It comes in two firmnesses: Original and Extra Firm. Both the manufacturer and I recommend you go straight for the Extra Firm. If you’re not used to myofascial bodywork it’s going to feel brutal at first, but you’ll quickly fall in love with the depth to which this little bad boy can break up knots and adhesions.  There is even a metal hook that you can purchase to allow you to use the ball like a Back Buddy, but I haven’t tried this so I can’t recommend it yet.

Arch Stretcher

 Definitely an at-home tool, this goofy arch and calf stretcher has helped me stave off serious achilles injuries multiple times.

Definitely an at-home tool, this goofy arch and calf stretcher has helped me stave off serious achilles injuries multiple times.

This goofy looking stretching device obliterates muscle tension in the calves relieving achilles tendonitis as well as simultaneously stretching your arch and preventing plantar fasciitis. I snagged one of these when I developed achilles tendon pain a month prior to my Kilimanjaro hike. Three to five minutes of stretching on this per day had my calves so limber that it not only improved my achilles issue, it also began relieving some chronic knee pain that I’d just been living with.  After my 2017 PCT Thru-Hike, I used this to treat the plantar fasciitis that I developed. There are several models available on Amazon for at a variety of price points. I own a Prostretch version, but from the photos cannot detect any difference between it and the cheaper option by Medi-Gear.

Battery Pack & Plastic Containers

 I began experimenting with the joys of on-trail massage using my Bonnie's Balm container.  But I don't always hike with it.

I began experimenting with the joys of on-trail massage using my Bonnie's Balm container.  But I don't always hike with it.

 I eventually found I prefer the powerbank better. And bonus, that makes it multifunctional. The gram weenies rejoice!

I eventually found I prefer the powerbank better. And bonus, that makes it multifunctional. The gram weenies rejoice!

I found this solution by accident. Early in my PCT Thru-Hike, I found myself in need of myofascial work on my legs.  Despite training prior to the trip, my legs just weren’t up to the daily abuse. My glutes ached every day and my iliotibial band (IT band) was singing in pain. Stretching alone wasn’t getting the job done.  In a desperate moment in my tent I woke in enough pain that returning to sleep clearly wasn’t going to happen. I knew I needed to massage the muscles but my fingers were fatiguing too quickly to be effective.  I rummaged around in my gear to find something that would work. I had a small plastic container of Bonnie’s Balm in tow for foot care. Apprehensively I began grinding the radius of the container into my sore spots.  Amazingly it provided incredible relief. And in-alignment with the ultralight backpacker ethos, it converted a single-use item into a multi-purpose item. This worked great until I accidently left it on the trail during a mid-day massage session.  That night I ended up using my Anker power pack and to my surprise was able to get even deeper due to the firmer material and smaller radius. The power pack became my go-to even after getting a replacement container of Bonnie’s Balm shipped out in the next resupply.

Now that I’m back home, I keep both items on my nightstand, right next to the Beastie Ball and Fuzzy Dunlop and choose the right tool for the job depending on what aches that night. I find with a bit of preventive myofascial work each night I am able to prevent serious aches and pains from developing.  And it is much easier to spread out the work over several nights than waiting for something truly painful to sideline me and force me to spend hours beating up my muscles with plastic torture devices.

What I own that I don’t like/use

Those are the gizmos that I get the most use out of.  I also own a Tiger Tail massage roller but find it to be too generalized in how it targets the muscles. I use the Bonnie’s Balm and Anker instead.  The other underused item is my full-size knobbed foam roller. Originally I purchased it for my IT band but found it to be too annoying to use. With the five gadgets I listed above, I can hit every spot that aches — usually while sitting on the couch watching television.  No more sliding around on the floor balancing on an orange tube as my bodyweight coarsely puts pressure on the sore spots.

Obviously there is some experimentation required in finding the right kit, and in recent years it seems like the number of options has exploded. Did I miss anything? Is there a killer product that you’ve found effective?  Let me know fitness device you can’t live pain-free without in the comments.


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