It’s the holiday season, which can only mean one thing…

Gift guides.

Want to know the truth about most gift guides filling your feeds this time of year? They’re rubbish. They’re an excuse for bloggers to rave about products they’ve hardly used, and for a company to send out a bunch of free crap in hopes that blogger will post said rave. No thanks. Not on Rock Creek Runner.

Now don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of good seasonal gift guides out there — I’ve been known to write a few myself — but if you want my unsolicited advice, it’s to always read gift guides with a skeptical eye.

So this year I’m doing something different. Something more practical, and hopefully better for you.

Instead of a traditional gift guide, I’d like to share the running tools essential to every runner’s gear list. They aren’t new products, seasonal clothing, or the shiny trending gadgets. In fact, several are free or have been around for years. So if you don’t have them, then by all means, treat this like a gift list.

The goal here isn’t to get you to buy something, but instead to share the tools I think you should be using, and more importantly, how to use them.

Totally up front side note, if you do buy something, many of these links are affiliate links. By purchasing through these links, Rock Creek Runner gets a kick-back. So thank you.

Essential Tools for Every Runner’s Gear List

1) Recovery and Self Massage Tools

One of the best things we can do to aid recovery of your tired bodies is self massage. Regularly incorporating self-message and strengthening exercises is an important part of injury prevention.

Self massage helps to promote recovery by rushing blood into your worked areas, breaking up scar tissue, and increasing flexibility.

Recommended Self Massage Tools:

  • Foam Roller: By now most runners have experienced a foam roller. What was once seen as just a weird torture device has now proven to dig deep into your muscles to break up scar tissue, promote recovery, and make you scream like a child. Essentially you’re giving yourself a deep tissue massage.
  • Massage Balls: Massage balls allow you to target specific areas in a way that the foam roller never could. This is both beneficial and excruciatingly painful.

How to Use Them

There are several techniques for using a foam roller or massage ball, so many that it’d be impossible for me to cover them all in this post. So instead I’ll direct you to my 3 favorite self massage tutorials for runners:

Quick Tips for Self Massage:

  • Foam roll, or use the massage balls a few times per week between tough workouts
  • Take it slow, maintaining good form and technique
  • When using a foam roller or massage ball for self massage, move slowly over the intended area. Don’t rush back and forth
  • Be mindful not just to focus on one single area, but work through an entire routine

2) Running Book Library

Every runner should have at least a few running books on hand. They come in handy as a quick reference throughout training, a motivator, a tool when something goes wrong. I have several shelves dedicated solely to running books, but here are a few of my favorites:

Recommended Books

How to Use Them

It’d be a little silly for me to tell you how to use a book, but I do have a few tips on how you can effectively reuse training books for quick questions and reference after reading them the first time:

  • Flag certain pages or sections based on specific topics. When you have a question, you can pull out several books and know exactly where to turn
  • Take notes in a separate quick reference guide or sheet. I have a tab on one of my first marathon training plan spreadsheets with a ton of tips and advice I was reading in different books. If I liked it, I’d jot it down, and still use that guide to this day
  • Categorize your books by topic

3) Tracking Tools

Tracking a run is one of those things we all know we should do, but most of us neglect to actually make time for. And no, I’m not just talking about pressing start on your GPS watch, never to look at the data again. I mean physically writing down the stats into a training log.

Tracking does 3 main things:

  1. It helps you establish consistency and a running routine by logging your progress each day
  2. It creates a blueprint detailing all your strengths, weakness, and improvements, and
  3. It provides a record you can use for future training or injury prevention

And even though it may feel like a tedious task, in reality it only takes a few minutes. Just follow each run with a quick stop by your training log, and knock it out before you settle into recovery mode.

Recommended Tracking Tools

  • Rock Creek Runner’s Essential Run Tracker: The exact tracking tool I use myself. It’s designed to log all the information I find important to track for later evaluation and use. (Free)
  • Strava: My favorite web-based tracker. It’s easy to use and upload runs from your GPS, offers a fun community aspect, and tracks all your PRs at certain distances and segments. If you’re on Strava, be sure to join the RCR group! (Free to $6/month)

How to Use Them

Awhile back I wrote a guide on No Meat Athlete about how to properly track your runs. You can check it out here.

In it, I explain how to use all the data you’ve been tracking. That data helps to answer the following questions:

  • Where has my training been lacking?
  • Have I covered all the basic types of workouts?
  • Where am I seeing improvements over the past weeks/months?
  • What areas of my training are showing their weaknesses?
  • Where am I now, and how should I train going forward?

By regularly looking back on the big picture of your training, you can easily answer these questions and get real, personalized, information to help you improve.

4) Training Plan

Going to battle without a plan is the quickest way to defeat. Or in our case, injury, missed goals, and misery.

Unless you’re running with no goal in sight, I always recommend having a training plan, even if it’s loose. Training plans keep you on track, motivated, and improving.

Recommended Training Plans

There are a number of great resources for training plans, both custom and general. Coaches, websites, and training groups will all offer their own resources. Most of which are runner tested and approved, but keep in mind there’s no one-size fits all training plan, so find a plan that fits your needs for that particular race.

With that in mind, I always recommend purchasing a plan. It’s tempting just to jump on a free plan you find online, but unfortunately almost all of them are crap. Join a program, hire a coach, or buy a training book that has a thorough plan that’s been put to the test and is tailored to you.

While this list certainly isn’t complete, here are a few place I recommend to find a good training plan:

How to Use Your Plan

Training plans are meant to be used as a guide, not a definitive rule book.

Depending on how your training is going, injuries, previous training, and everything else that comes up in life, adjustments may need to be made. Accept that as the reality, and don’t beat yourself up when things go slightly astray.

Quick Tips for Using a Training Plan:

  • Make adjustments as necessary. If you need more time to recover, take it. If you’re on vacation and miss a run, make it up and move on. The worst thing you can do is grow to hate your training because it’s so strict
  • During the off season or between stricter training cycles, have fun with your training. Use a plan as a loose guide, but experiment with different workouts, distances, and training techniques
  • Look ahead and plan your schedule accordingly
  • Move around days with caution. A good plan was designed with specific workouts scheduled on specific days
  • Print out your plan and hang it somewhere visible (your office, refrigerator, mirror). This acts as both a motivator and accountability partner … especially if it’s somewhere public for others to see

5) Good Running Shoes

The most important piece of equipment for every runner is their shoe — unless you’re a barefoot runner, I guess.

Choosing the right shoe is a complicated process, and just like training plans, one shoe doesn’t fit all.

We come to each run with our own history, our own unique tendencies and needs. Your running shoe should reflect that. Always try on shoes before purchasing, and if the store allows, run on a treadmill or around the block to test them out.

Recommended Running Shoes

Because no shoe fits all, I’m going to refrain from recommending specific shoes in this post. You can always see what I’m running in here, or through different reviews posted on the site.

But I will recommend my three favorite trail running shoe companies:

I can always count on those companies for an innovative, durable, and comfortable ride.

How to Choose a Shoe

Like I mentioned earlier, the best way to choose a shoe is to run in it. Most good running stores will help size you up based on your needs, and allow you to test it out either in the store or around the block. Do this. Don’t be too timid to give it a go.

As you’re wearing the shoe, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do my toes have any room? Your feet will swell during long runs, so always allow for plenty of room in the toe box. I often buy shoes a half size large for this reason, and brands like Altra take this into account with their foot-shaped toe boxes.
  • Is my heel moving up and down? If it is, that may just be a result of how you tied your shoe, but if it feels like a persistent problem, don’t buy them.
  • Is there enough room for my foot? Beyond just the toes, is the shoe too narrow? Too wide? Some brands run narrow, which doesn’t work for everyone.
  • Will it hold up on the trail? Pay attention to potential wear points. Ask the worker if they’ve had any returned, or if they know how it holds up over time.
  • Does this shoe fit my needs? Running a lot of road between trails? You probably don’t want anything too burly. Frequently run on sloppy trails? Get something with extra tacky lugs.
  • Is it comfortable? If it isn’t comfortable in the store, it won’t be comfortable after several miles.

Use Training Tools To Run Smarter

Running gadgets are fun and exciting, that’s why they’re so popular on gear lists and holiday guides.

But often times, they’re more distracting than helpful. Next time you’re about to drop a wad of cash on a gadget, ask yourself it it’s really going to help you run smarter, stronger, and faster.

The tools I’ve listed above will do just that, and most of them are super cheap — shoes being the main exception.

We’ve come a long way with running tools over the past generations, so let’s take advantage of the help they can provide.


Author Doug Hay is the founder of Rock Creek Runner, host of the Trail Talk podcast, and fanatical about everything trail running -- beards, plaid shirts, bruised toenails, and all. He and his wife live and run in beautiful Black Mountain, NC.

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