Experts sound off on which recovery- and performance-boosting tools will actually get the job done
For something you could (hypothetically) do barefoot and naked, running sure does come with a lot of paraphernalia. But will it help you run or just hurt your wallet? We tapped the sport’s top experts as well as the latest research to find out how well five so-hot-right-now pieces of gear really work.
When you take to any race’s start line, you’re bound to see people covered in these strips of brightly colored tape that promises to help you run through shin splints, bad knees, and other injuries with minimal pain. Spanning from one end to the other of a given muscle, it is said to either facilitate or inhibit that muscle from firing by giving it sensory feedback, according to physical therapist Michael Silverman, coordinator of the Tisch Performance Center at the Hospital for Special Surgery. “If a muscle is working too much, you shut it off. Or vise versa.”
The verdict: Research published in the Journal of Manipulative Physiotherapy suggests that the tape can provide similar rehab results to manual therapies such as massage. “Properly applied tape may help with injury rehabilitation by promoting more favorable movement patterns,” says Janet Hamilton, an exercise physiologist at Running Strong in Atlanta. For best results, Silverman recommends visiting a Certified Kinesio Taping Practitioner—or CKTP for short.
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Tight and stretchy compression wear for runners—whether in the form a sock, shorts, or an arm or calf sleeve—works by squeezing the affected body part to keep blood from pooling, Hamilton says. And with more blood making it back to the hearts for recirculation, the runners who wear them expect to run farther, faster, and with less pain.
The verdict: The research here is mixed, but pretty much all experts agree compression socks (or any compression gear for that matter) isn’t exactly a game-changer. Still, that doesn’t mean they can’t help. For instance, one study of competitive runners in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning found those who wore below-the-knee compression wear didn’t run any faster, but they did have greater leg power after completing a 10-km time trial. Research shows that runners who wear compression gear do experience less perceived leg soreness as well as lower levels of post-workout blood lactate (an exercise byproduct) levels, which could translate into a speedier recovery, Silverman says. “If you feel like it works for you, go for it.”
If you’ve ever rolled out, you know how good it hurts—and how it’s supposed to ease pain and speed recovery. But how does it work? A form of myofascial release, it’s supposed to smooth and lengthen tight muscles by breaking up the adhesions and scar tissue that form on deep tissue during exercise, Silverman explains.
The verdict: Experts unanimously agree it really does work. “When performed on a regular basis, foam rolling can increase mobility, reduce muscle soreness, and improve flexibility,” says Anthony Wall, exercise physiologist and director of professional education for the American Council on Exercise. Just remember: Consistency is more important than how deep you go. And—although it can be challenging at first—it’s important to breathe through the pain to relax your muscles. “When you relax, you are able to get a better level of compression. Your muscle isn’t fighting against that force,” says Wall, who notes that you can also lightly roll before a workout to increase blood flow and warm up your muscles.
There’s a reason “bad knee” is pretty much synonymous with “runner’s knee”: About 40 percent of all running injuries strike the knee. And knee braces—while they vary in size, shape, and material—can all help provide some support to ease the pain, right?
The verdict: It’s a Band-Aid, not a cure-all. “Use it sparingly,” advises Wall, who notes that providing external support can only take your knee so far. You also need to determine what the underlying issue is and address it. “The best brace in the world is optimum strength in the muscles designed to support the knee,” says Hamilton. “That means a really strong set of core muscles, strong glutes, quads, and hamstrings. And don’t forget about the calf muscles. They cross the knee too!”
The first line of defense to just about any running injury is R-I-C-E (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation). But in recent years, runners have gone from applying an ice pack to a blown ankle to painfully sitting in a tub of ice in order to prevent injury and speed workout recovery, Silverman.
The verdict: “Your body is really inflamed after a long run, and ice will definitely help control that,” says Silverman, who notes that inflammation can cause certain muscles to just quit working, which can lead to limps, imbalances, and injury. Can’t stand the cold? Hamilton has found that her athletes feel just as much relief from cool water as cold. “Most of my athletes report that 10 minutes seems to be as effective as 20 too,” she says.