11 Performance-Focused Gifts To Improve Training And Adaptation

These gifts are 11 research-backed options for an athlete looking to push their performance limits.

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Running is a simple sport–you just need shoes and big dreams! Well, I guess you could use some performance underwear too. I knew “Born to Run” was not giving the full picture the moment I thought about our prehistoric ancestors going on naked long runs. It seems like an evolutionary oversight to be designed like we were before the invention of anti-chafe cream.

So yeah… shoes, big dreams, and preferably some underwear. While we’re at it, more layers may help. Plus devices to make sure you can recover, 50% of which look like some sort of ambitious sex toy. Add in performance nutrition (Chuckie Cheese pizza buffet) and elite coaching (Magic 8 Ball). Ask the coach: Is running actually a simple sport? Ask again later.

Ask again later.

Ask again later.

OK, I think my coach is broken. Signs point to yes.

In coaching, I get a cool window into lots of little things that athletes swear by to fuel long-term growth. Some are backed by fascinating scientific studies, others are backed by science AND look like they should be in a BDSM dungeon labeled as the VibraTron 8000. The 8000 is the same as the 7000 series, but they gave it a new upper.

These 11 performance gift ideas may help you with holiday planning, or provide you with ideas if you’re on the lookout for something to level-up your own training. Let’s do this!

RELATED: Our Favorite Percussive Massagers For Trail Runners

One: Percussive Massager

A 2014 study in the Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research involved 45 female subjects split into three groups of 15 receiving vibration massage, regular massage, and no treatment prior to eccentric exercise (a reverse arm curl). At 24, 48 and 72 hours post-exercise, the vibration and massage treatment groups had less muscle soreness, less muscle lactate dehydrogenase, reduced creatine kinase (a proxy for muscle damage), and increased recovery of range of motion.

Other studies back up the findings for massage/vibration effectiveness both before (2017 study) and after (2019 study) activity. The tools are easy to use (article here), plus they make good conversation starters with TSA agents. Given the solid research and anecdotal reduction I see in injury rates, I like all athletes to use one daily. Higher-priced options like Theragun or Hypervolt are reliable at $200 to $300, but there are also some for as little as $50 on Amazon. It’s worth the investment!

RELATED: The Science Of Percussive Massage

Two: Wireless Headphones

A 2018 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research had 17 runners complete a 1.5-mile time trial, once without music and once with self-selected motivational music. The runners with music had reduced perceived exertion and averaged 10 seconds faster, though the faster times were not statistically significant. There is not perfect agreement across studies, but in my personal experience, the best thing to overcome a motivation lull is THIS. SICK. BEAT. Plus, podcasts are an opportunity to learn! Mostly about unsolved murders!

Bone-conduction headphones like Aftershockz let you hear the world around you. A person can never have too many Airpods, since they are like the Heisenberg cat, lost and found at the same time forever. There are even some $25 versions on Amazon that are perfectly serviceable.

RELATED: You Can Listen To Music When Running If It Brings You Joy

Three: Home Strength Gym–Bands, Kettlebell, Pull-Up Bar

For most athletes, sustainable strength work requires ease of access. If I had to go to the gym every time I wanted to do my routine, I might last a week. However, your experience may vary, as I’ll sometimes use a torn-up paper bag before I drive 10 minutes to buy more toilet paper.

The Weekly Strength Work Template that most of our athletes use involves just a few items that are relatively inexpensive. Multiple sets of bands allow an athlete to break one or two as their glutes become too strong to be contained. A door-frame pull-up bar allows for both core and upper-body strength in a single exercise that takes a few seconds. A 25 and/or 50 pound kettlebell allows an athlete to add as much weight as I’d ever want. 

RELATED: How To Build A Home Gym

Four: WHOOP, Oura, or other health metric system

I used to treat my body like I treat my car–I don’t want to know what’s going on under the hood, and if something starts making a funny noise, I’ll drive on it until there’s an active fire. WHOOP changed that, providing a way to get some insight into how various interventions (from caffeine to sleep hygiene to training intensity) affect my recovery. After my co-coach Megan and I talked about it on our podcast, we ended up partnering with them formally as a podcast sponsor (code “SWAP” for 15% off, with another $30 off at the link above). But my objectivity can’t be bought (for the market price of my endorsement), so I also recommend competitor Oura or whatever other device lets you get some more insight into your heart rate variability.

A 2018 review article in the journal Psychiatry Investigations found that HRV correlates with stress, validating its use as one data point to inform stress management practices. There are tons of cool studies of how it can be used in practice (though the jury is still out on its universal effectiveness for athletes). Just be careful with it if you ever notice that the monitoring causes its own stress.

RELATED: Whoop Is Like Strava For Recovery

Five: Fancy GPS watch

Megan recently surprised me with a new Garmin Forerunner 745, and it has been one of my favorite toys. It has a ton of settings, including a “Trail Run” mode that gives live readings of vert on every uphill (while I don’t love seeing pace, I do love cashing in vert coins). Plus, as the ultimate surprise, the wrist-based heart rate is mostly accurate for me, likely indicative of some recent leaps forward with the photoplethysmography technology.

Garmin, Coros, Suunto, Polar, and others make great options. Many of them also include sleep monitoring and HRV, so there can be other fun applications too. But no matter what, make sure watch settings are purely uplifting.

RELATED: Our Favorite Trail Tech This Year

Six: Strava premium membership

Whenever I check the Strava profile of an athlete we coach, my heart sinks when they don’t have a “Grade Adjusted Pace” metric to activate. That option is included in the $5 a month premium option, and you can gift subscriptions using their website. One of the coolest features is their Route Mapping, which includes a proprietary heat map algorithm that allows users to plan and execute the most badass of adventures. I am often asked how I found some wild route through the backcountry, and the real answer is Strava’s data visualization (the actual answer I give is that I read “My Side of the Mountain” as a kid and dedicated myself to self-sufficiency in the wilderness). 

Seven: $250 gift certificate to a local running store for supershoes

A fascinating 2021 study had 12 male participants test 7 different supershoes, finding a significant advantage across most shoes (check out the study itself for some very cool and provocative ranking of the different shoes). The shoes combine a stiff carbon plate with responsive foams to reduce the energy cost of faster paces. I used the Nike Vaporfly for the first time last week, and in addition to going faster than expected at the same heart rate, I noticed that I didn’t get as sore the next day (likely due to the soft pebax foam material). In coaching, I have seen that the shoes help some athletes get the feel for faster running and more efficient force generation, helping them even when they’re wearing traditional shoes.

Winter is a great time to work on speed, and supershoes might help motivate athletes to do that. The Nike models are still the head of the class, but the Asics model is catching up, and it’s possible that newer models from other brands like Adidas and Saucony will even exceed what we’re seeing now. They are pricey and don’t last for many miles, but even a single run in a sweet-looking shoe is more useful than 10,000 sweet-looking diamonds.

RELATED: Our Favorite Shoes For Speedwork On Trail

Eight: Zwift or a direct drive trainer

Cross-training can improve fitness, particularly as a supplement to running, but can also be the most boring thing ever. Step in Zwift, turning biking into a video game! If you want to really splurge on a gift, a direct drive trainer that hooks up to any bike makes indoor riding feel as smooth and snappy as riding on a freshly paved road (options from Tacx and Wahoo are around $1000). The Zwift software only costs $15 a month, with endless roads to explore in the virtual world.

RELATED: Why I Love Zwift For Cross-Training

Nine: Blood testing

Blood testing is like a supershoe for physiology. Companies like Inside Tracker offer testing services geared for athletes that allow evidence-backed interventions to improve health and performance (Inside Tracker has a gift option here). Every coach has this scenario play out all the time: an athlete gets a blood test, learning of some sort of offset from optimal ranges. They either start supplementing or change behaviors according to expert guidance. They suddenly have breakthroughs to new levels of fitness, sometimes in just a couple weeks. Pay special attention to ferritin, hemoglobin, vitamin D, magnesium, sex hormones, and vitamin B12.


Ten: The Extremity Package–Quality socks and gloves

I used to get all of my socks from Wal-Mart. I looked like I was auditioning to be a suspect on “Cops.” That’s still where I buy my socks if left to my own devices, so gifts are extremely important. You might know someone like that in your own life–they buy themselves gear as if they’re cast as a background role only credited as “dude one.” Expensive socks and gloves seem like such an unnecessary luxury to me. Blisters and frostbite are just part of the game, right?

Wrong. Tons of companies make great socks, like Drymax and Stance. The same goes for gloves. For all types of high-class running gear, I am obsessed with Rabbit (you can get a gift wardrobe from them and know it’s the best). 

Eleven: The Roche Package–nose strips, protein powder, and an Outside+ membership

The other day, I forgot my nose strip at the house, and I only realized it as I warmed up and felt like I was underwater. I drove 15 minutes back to retrieve them instead of risking olfactory letdown. While the science is out on nose strips, I tried them after seeing a large proportion of the cycling peloton looking goofy as heck, and I’ve noticed a big difference. The Breathe Right “Large Tan” strips applied to a clean and dry nose stick on with any amount of sweat, and they have the added benefit of ensuring that you’ll never take yourself too seriously. As one of my athlete’s children said after she saw me on the trail: “Why is your coach wearing a band-aid on his nose? Is he OK?!” They’re the perfect stocking-stuffer and nose-unstuffer.

I’m a big fan of protein powder for athletes that may undershoot daily goals. My personal go-to is Vega Vanilla Performance (a whopping $89 for a large tub). That forms the base of my big nutrition secret: protein cereal (Instagram Reel tutorial here). Mix a 30g scoop of protein with a big bowl of water, then add your favorite cereals (Peanut Butter Chex and Apple Cinnamon Cheerios) for the perfect post-run meal.

Most importantly, subscribe to Trail Runner Mag via Outside+ if you can. Over the years, Trail Runner took a risk on me as a relatively unknown freelancer, letting me write hundreds of articles on everything from very serious topics (like transgender athlete rights and aging/death) to only partially serious topics (vibrators that make your muscles feel good). It’s a great deal at just 47 cents a week, with tons of training plans for any distance from 5k to 100 miles. But even if you don’t need it, it would mean a ton to subscribe to support a company that genuinely aims to help people and support a more inclusive community. 

Thank you to all of you for reading my stuff (and/or listening to our podcast) over the years. Happy Holidays! So much love and appreciation for you all.

And because this article is mostly full of humor, here’s an extra gift idea to end on a high note.

Subscribe to Trail Runner here. 

Bonus: Sponsored Runner Package–a travel voucher and discount on shoes in exchange for an Instagram post about your love

This Christmas, anyone can be a professional runner! In a fancy email, offer a 15% off discount code for 3 pairs of shoes, plus a gas card for up to one (1) trip. In return, have them write eight (8) Instagram posts about your #love. Make sure the email contains a provision that the relationship can be terminated at any time if the terms are not met, or if…like…someone better comes around.

David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they wrote a book called The Happy Runner.

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