Our Favorite Things: 2016 Gift Guide

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It’s our holiday custom to crowd-source gear recommendations from the entire UltraRunning Magazine team for our annual gift guide. This year, they were given the following guidelines: tell us your favorite new product, or the one you found most interesting, and your tried-and-true gear that you wouldn’t run an ultra without. The result is the list that follows, where you’ll find plenty of gift ideas for your favorite ultrarunner, or – who are we kidding? – for yourself.

Food and Supplements

Food items make perfect stocking stuffers in small quantities, or gifts that keep on giving if you buy in bulk. Here are some of our favorites:

Beachbody Performance Chocolate Recovery Powder ($70 for 710g jar). Everybody knows about the recovery benefit of drinking chocolate milk after a workout. Beachbody’s powder can be mixed with water, but one of our favorite post-workout routines is adding this product to milk for a supercharged recovery drink that is high in protein, branch chain amino acids (BCAAs) and phytonutrients. You get the sweet deliciousness of chocolate milk with the essential nutrients you need to go hard again tomorrow.

Vanilla Bean GU

Vanilla Bean GU

Vanilla Bean GU ($35 for box of 24). Two of our contributors identified this as their most reliable staple in ultra races. From Gary Dudney: “I’d love to get up Christmas morning and find these in my stocking.” He eats them once per hour (along with electrolyte caps) in his endurance races for calorie and salt replacement. Tropical John Medinger describes his tried and true item thusly: “Vanilla Bean GU. Everything else is optional.”

This year some of our staffers became big waffle fans. Matt Laye is partial toward GU Stroopwafels ($24 for box of 16) on the trails – and especially warmed up over a cup of coffee. Joe Uhan recommends Honey Stinger waffles ($23 for box of 16) as a tasty, easy-to-eat and quick fuel alternative.

When someone completes the Badwater 135, you should take their hydration advice seriously. We’ve included Tailwind Nutrition in three straight gift guides, and this year it fit the tried and true criteria for Cory Reese, whom it helped finish Badwater. He says, “It does a remarkable job of keeping my stomach happy and giving me the energy I need.” Try their multi-flavor sampler at $16 for seven portable packs.

One nutrition product gaining significant momentum this year is VESPA, which uses a naturally-occurring wasp extract peptide to optimize fat metabolism during aerobic activity. Many elite and age-group ultrarunners are embracing an optimized fat metabolism (OFM) diet, including our Travis Macy. Travis uses the Ultra Concentrate ($90 for 12 pouches) and finds it effective at keeping energy levels strong and steady for the duration of an ultra race.

Bearded Brothers Energy Bar

Bearded Brothers Energy Bar

Our favorite name for a food company comes courtesy of Heather Pola, who heartily recommends Bearded Brothers Energy Bars ($3 per bar). They have multiple flavors, all of which are simple whole foods. Two flavors are nut-free, and all of them are vegan, gluten-free, GMO-free, and organic. Super eco-friendly bonus: the packaging is compostable in both landfills and the garden. Heather says, “I eat them for snacks, and when racing I’ve packed them inside my cheek like a chipmunk, so I barely have to chew while racing.” Whether or not you agree with her chewing strategy, the bars themselves are definitely appetizing.

Often, food and drink aren’t enough to manage your nutrition needs… which is why we’re big fans of Hammer Endurolytes ($20 for 120 capsules). They are extremely helpful for maintaining a healthy fluid balance in the heat, and they’re also effective at preventing or diminishing muscle cramps during high demand activity. An additional, sometimes overlooked benefit is their soothing effect on sore and tired legs when you’re sleeping, helping to prevent restless leg movement.

Gear and Gadgets

This category runs the gamut from low-budget to big-ticket items, and reflects the diversity of toys and tech items that ultrarunners love.

UltrAspire Lumen 600

UltrAspire Lumen 600

We start with a trio of lights, the first of which was one of the most popular items in our staff survey. The UltrAspire Lumen 600 light belt ($180) received several recommendations for its brightness, comfort and the advantage being mounted at waist level instead of on the user’s head. It also has pockets to provide some extra carrying capacity when you’re traveling through the darkness.

Now that the darker months are upon us, there is nothing like Knuckle Lights for providing easy and convenient illumination of the trails. Lights that literally attach to each hand, they allow runners to flexibly and instantly provide multiple light sources while navigating rocks, roots and everything else out there in the dark. With their new rechargeable batteries, they are always ready to light your run.

Lights don’t have to be big to be impressive – as the tiny Black Diamond Ion headlamp ($25) demonstrates. Weighing a mere 55g, it provides 100 lumens of brightness with an amazing 180-hour burn time. Its compact size is perfect for storing when not in use, and you’ll barely even notice it in your pack. We found it ideal for those dark early miles of a 100k, or for tucking away as a backup light through the night of a 100-miler.

When the sun comes back up, it’s essential to have the right sunglasses, and Travis Macy’s favorite are the Native Flatirons ($110). They combine a casual-looking style with high-demand design elements and one of the most advanced polarized lenses available. There are nine different colorways to choose from, so you’re sure to find the perfect match to complement your training kit.

Acumobility Ball

Acumobility Ball

Acumobility Balls ($25) are a clever new product that can be used for self-massage, improved tissue mobility or strength training. They are firm rubber objects that are rounded into a ball on one end and flat on the other. With the round end up, it can be used as a deep tissue massager that doesn’t roll around like a tennis ball does – this makes it easier to isolate and maintain pressure on specific spots. Flipped upside down, the balls can be used to do push-ups on an unstable surface, which requires core activation and strengthening along with the regular upper body challenge. There are two intensity levels to choose from, and these can be bought in pairs for bilateral mobility exercises. The company also has video tutorials online for a wide range of stretching and exercise ideas.

Another small but creative product is the Ultraspire Formula 250 bottle ($13), which we reviewed on our website earlier this fall. It is a soft-sided collapsible flask that can accommodate drinks, gels or even real food like nut butters. It has a large flow opening that makes it easy to empty, and the silicone material is entirely dishwasher safe, stain-resistant and taste- and odor-free. It has seamless construction that is easy to clean by hand, and a bottom loop for easy hang drying. If you like to carry your own secret potion on the trail, this is the perfect container for it.

Squirrels Nut butter

Squirrels Nut butter

2016 was a year when several anti-chafing products came to market – so many, in fact, that we’re planning a full category review in early 2017. In the meantime, one of our staff favorites is 2Toms SportShield, which is available in a roll-on version ($13 for 1.5-oz) as well as a pack of towelettes ($15 for 10) that are ideal for putting in a drop bag or carrying in your race vest in case you need reapplication after several hours. SportShield is also available in a female-specific formulation that has aloe and shea butter for improved moisturization.

The other anti-chafe cream that has us excited (yes, we get excited about these things) is Squirrel’s Nut Butter, an all-natural multi-purpose salve that prevents chafing and blisters and helps restore cracked or dry skin with eczema. It is available in stick form ($17 for 2.7-oz stick) or in a tub ($13 for 2 oz), as well as smaller sizes of each container that are easily stashed away in a pack. This product is a favorite of John Medinger, who converted to using it instead of Bodyglide this year.

Kahtoola Nanospikes

Kahtoola Nanospikes

If you run in serious winter conditions, Kahtoola Nanospikes ($50) stand out as our recommended choice among external traction attachments. This model is equally suitable for snowy trails or icy roads and features 0.2-inch tungsten carbide studs that have excellent wear resistance with high mileage. The Nanospikes weigh approximately 8 oz (varies slightly depending on size) and stuff down small enough to stow in a pack and then apply when you reach a particularly treacherous section of trail.

We test a lot of hydration packs during the spring and summer, and the Ultimate Direction Scott Jurek Ultra Vest 3.0 ($125) earned a lot of mentions. This is the model that was prototype tested during Jurek’s record-breaking Appalachian Trail FKT in 2015, and the 3.0 version has numerous upgrades from its previous version that many of our staffers love. Its overall weight was drastically reduced, down to a mere 7 oz; our staffers describe it as minimal enough to wear easily, yet large enough to hold everything you need for a 100-miler.

SPOT Gen 3 Tracker

SPOT Gen 3 Tracker

If you’re looking to give someone peace of mind as a gift, the SPOT Gen3 GPS tracker is an excellent way to do it. We reviewed this product on our website in March, and editor Karl Hoagland became a fan after a through hike: “Having done the Tahoe Rim Trail, the peace of mind knowing that others can follow you, and that you can communicate if you get in trouble, is a massive mental boost when you’re out there – not to mention the practical benefit it provides if something bad actually does go down.” The Spot normally costs $170 plus subscription fees, but during this holiday season (through December 31) the device is being sold for half price at participating retailers; check the company website for the retailer nearest you.

We’re getting into the techy portion of our guide… and if you’re someone who likes high-end gizmos, the Suunto Spartan Ultra ($750) could be the most valuable piece of bling under the tree. The watch had a soft rollout this fall, and is positioned as the next evolution of the Ambit series, incorporating extensive activity tracking with comprehensive multi-sport and navigational functionality. It’s one of the most stylish GPS devices we’ve ever seen, but its operational capacity isn’t fully realized yet. As of this writing, there are limitations in its customization as well as its compatibility with Android systems, but these will be addressed with scheduled updates. Look for a full review of the Spartan Ultra on our website in early 2017.

Garmin Vivoactive HR

Garmin Vivoactive HR

Matt Laye recommends the Garmin Vivoactive HR ($250). For the price, you won’t find a more comprehensive feature set: it has optical HR monitoring, activity tracking, sleep monitoring, weather alerts, text message alerts, music control and extensive customization through downloadable Gamin IQ apps. Even with all this, it still has 10-12 hours of battery life on the most accurate GPS setting. Its profile is slim enough that it’s relatively unobtrusive, and you can easily wear it under a dress shirt.

Joe Uhan is our resident tech geek, and he’s been playing around with a couple of interesting gadgets this year. First is the Lumo Run Sensor and Clip ($100), a small device that you clip to the center of your low back. It’s essentially a running stride gyroscope device that provides real-time data on things like stride rate, stance times, step length and any asymmetries you have. The idea of getting real-time stride feedback that can also be analyzed in detail on your smartphone after the run is an extremely intriguing development.

Another gadget that Joe is toying with is the Scosche RHYTHM+ ($80), an optical HR monitor that has Bluetooth and ANT+ built in, making it compatible with a huge variety of GPS devices and third-party apps. The strap is worn on the forearm, so you can wear it at the same time as a watch – and after your workout is done, the HR data automatically syncs to the activity on Strava, digifit, mapmyfitness and literally hundreds of other landing sites. If your current GPS device doesn’t provide HR info, and you’d like to have that information without buying a whole new device, the RHYTHM+ is a good option to consider.

Apparel

Let’s start at the top – of your head, that is. There are two primary styles you can go with in the cap category, and the most popular one among ultrarunners is the classic trucker style. The BOCO Technical Trucker hat ($25) combines the looks of a trucker hat with performance fabrics that stay comfortable during activity. They have multiple designs to choose from – we’re partial to the Colorado Blue – and they can also do custom designs if your running club wants to order in bulk.

Buff Pack Run Cap

Buff Pack Run Cap

If you like your running caps in the traditional style, an interesting new entry in this category is the Buff Pack Run cap ($32), which weighs only one ounce, and the thin fabric and crushable bill can be rolled up small enough to tuck into a pocket when not in use. It is made from breathable, moisture-wicking four-way stretch fabric that helps with cooling while shielding your eyes from the sun. It has a low profile internal sweatband, and tightens in the rear with an elastic cord rather than a buckle or snap clasp.

Another new Buff product we’re using is the UV Arm Sleeves ($25), which are made from the same four-way breathable stretch fabric that is also antimicrobial. The cuffs stay in place nicely with silicon grips. These sleeves provide UPF 40 sun protection, and the brightly colorful designs are available in three sizes.

Note: the Buff Arm Sleeves and Pack Run Cap will be available for purchase in January 2017.

The apparel item that received the most effusive praise from our staff is the Patagonia Houdini jacket ($89). Joe Uhan says, “This is clutch gear because it is so lightweight, but provides both a modicum of water resistance and retains significant heat. It saved me at the latter stages of a cold, dark, pouring-rain 100 miler.” The jacket weighs only 3.5 oz and packs down smaller than a water bottle, so it’s convenient insurance to carry with you on a long outing when conditions are unpredictable.

Another jacket that proved itself clutch this year was The North Face HyperAir GTX ($249), which kept us warm on 30-degree runs in the Sierras, and dry for more than 28 hours at the rainy, snowy Bear 100. This jacket uses new Gore-Tex Permanent Beading Surface technology, which strips off the outer fabric layer to improve breathability and prevent absorption of water from the surface. The thinner barrier is significantly lighter, packs down smaller and has better performance properties than any Gore-Tex jacket before it.

A great alternative to traditional running tights is the Salomon S-Lab Hybrid WP pants ($220), which have a slightly loose fit that can be worn alone or over the top of a pair of shorts. High ankle zips make them easy to put on and take off without removing your shoes. These pants are unbelievably thin and light at just 2.8 oz, but they provide outstanding insulation and weather resistance for their thickness and weight.

Socks

At UltraRunning, socks qualify for their own standalone category. We’re complete sock geeks around here, and there’s almost nothing we’re more passionate about than the garments we trust with the wellbeing of our feet.

Last year Fitsok won a Best in Category designation from us, and this year they introduced the ISW Isowool Trail Crew ($25 for two-pack), which are a full-crew version of the sock we loved previously. These socks utilize a combination of Merino wool and polypropylene for comfort and moisture management, and there is light compression throughout the sock to keep the fit secure. They’ve also proven quite durable over the past year, and are certainly up to the challenge of racing ultras.

We have a number of Injinji fans in house. The signature toe sock design proves highly effective at preventing blisters in high-demand conditions. Contributing Editor Erika Hoagland prefers the Midweight Crew ($17), which is a slightly thicker sock with an extra layer of protective cushioning for long runs on dirt paths and rocky trails. These socks are full crew height and come in vibrant colors and patterns.

Injiji Spectrum Run Midweight Mini-Crew

Injiji Spectrum Run Midweight Mini-Crew

Another Injinji style we love is the Spectrum Run Midweight Mini-Crew ($16), which also uses a thicker fabric but rises to just above the ankle. Lightweight mesh at the ankle collar enhances breathability, while the arch and heel areas stay snug around the foot. Among our favorite sock brands, nothing fits the tried-and-true criteria quite like Drymax; they are the sock of choice for elite runners on our staff as well as mid-packers. Ian Sharman says, “I’m a big fan of the latest iteration of the Drymax Maximum Protection Trail sock ($33), which fits extremely well and helped keep me completely blister-free in three of three 100 milers this year -– something I’ve never managed before for an entire season.” We can’t think of a better endorsement than that.

The final sock that has proven itself in the 100-mile test lab is CEP Progressive+ Merino Compression socks ($60). These socks are Editor Karl Hoagland’s go-to sock for the Western States 100 each year; he likes the secure fit and gentle ankle and calf support as his legs become fatigued in the later miles. The Merino version mentioned here is a great cold-weather equivalent that also has natural odor control; it’s ideal for cold-weather running as well as skiing or any winter aerobic sports.

Books

We’re blessed to have so many talented writers on our UR roster – and we’re proud that a few of them have had successful books published in the past year.

The first is Road to Sparta by Dean Karnazes ($20). It describes the 153-mile Spartathlon Ultra from Athens to Sparta, which commemorates the accomplishment of Pheidippides in running between the towns to recruit help for the Greeks in the Battle of Marathon – the birthplace of another historic race. There’s probably nobody better suited to tell this story than Karnazes, a bestselling author and highly accomplished ultrarunner who honored his Greek heritage at the Spartathlon by consuming only food and beverages that were available in 490 BCE. Karnazes has a gift for storytelling, and this is an inspiring and memorable read.

Grand Trail by Frederic and Alexis Berg

Grand Trail by Frederic and Alexis Berg

One of the most eagerly anticipated running books of the fall is Grand Trail by Frederic and Alexis Berg ($45), a hardcover coffee table book that combines profiles of elite ultrarunners with stunning photography from the most famous ultra courses in the world, including Western States and Hardrock. It also features multiple vignettes on the nature of trail running, and how the people, places and emotions of ultrarunning combine to make our sport truly special and unique. This book is highly recommended by three of our staff members, and it’s the type of book you can flip through over and over again without losing your sense of awe and appreciation.

Miscellaneous

We didn’t have a category for these last two items, but they were too good to omit from our list. The first is a massage gift certificate ($ amount determined by you), heartily recommended by Cory Reese. There’s almost no better feeling than lying on a massage table a few days after a hard race effort, letting your body be pampered while enhancing your overall physical recovery.

This last suggestion is actually our favorite idea of them all. Our art director Lisa Smith advises that you give the gift of friendship by adopting a dog from an animal shelter (priceless). Numerous studies have shown a link between pet ownership and overall life happiness, and a dog just might be the best running companion you will ever have.

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About Author

Donald is a physical therapist, California native, barefoot aficionado, and father of three with more than 25 years of experience in endurance sports. He was a collegiate rower at UCLA, then dabbled in marathons and Ironman-distance triathlons before falling in love with ultras in the early 2000s. His favorite locations to run include Marin County, CA, and the Sierra Nevada mountains, and he loves exploring America's National Parks. When he's not training for ultramarathons, he enjoys hiking or slacklining with his family in Monterey County, CA.

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