The research is clear: massage matters. While professional sports massage is helpful, it’s also often expensive. Thankfully, there are many self-massage moves you can integrate into your daily routine to help deliver the same benefits.
Whether you’re using a foam roller, your hands, or any other massage tools, regular self-massage can help “prevent knots or adhesions in muscles, release trigger points and work out knots,” according to Hannah Floyd, LMT, a massage therapist at Fleet Feet Saint Louis. What’s more, massage helps to “touch base with your body [and determine] what parts need special attention.”
Here is what you need to know to get rolling:
Gear up. Robert Brown, a massage therapist for Fast Track Physical Therapy in Fairfax, Virginia, says every runner should own a foam roller and a massage stick, to minimize injury and prolong a healthy running life.
Move around midday. Often, what undoes runners is not what happens while logging miles, but the time spent sitting and standing still during the rest of the day, says Michael Gaige, LMT, founder of Maine Sports Massage Company, based in Fleet Feet Maine Running.
"If you’re on your feet all day, the low back can become tight," says Gaige, who is also a running coach and member of the Maine Running Hall of Fame. "If you’re sitting for long periods of time, the hips can tighten from being flexed forward, and the low-back muscles can become overstretched." To help alleviate these issues, move around as much as possible during the day. Set a timer for every 30 minutes to remind you to take a movement break.
Warm up before running. Perform a dynamic warm-up of at least 10 minutes before your pre-run massage, says Brown. You might try some very easy jogging, butt kicks, jumping jacks or high knees. “This warms up your body temperature and your muscles, brings blood flow to the muscles and allows you to move more safely,” he adds. What’s more, adds Floyd, it “stimulates muscles and helps you identify areas of your body that may require extra stretching before the run.”
Gaige suggests using these moves after your muscles are warm and before you hit the road.
To help ease hip and low-back tightness that may have built up during the work day, lay on your back and place a foam roller or bolster across the small of your back near the top of your hips so that the roller is perpendicular to your torso and tilting your hips. “Just lie there for two minutes to release much of the tension in your low back and hips,” he says.
Lay on your side on a mat or rug. Use your body weight to find tight and sore spots on your iliotibial (IT) band and top of your quadriceps. “Just lay on and wiggle across any sore spots gently at first, and gradually be more aggressive, wiggling back and forth to loosen that stuck fascia and tight muscle,” says Gaige.
Be careful not to apply too much pressure when you’re working these areas—especially before a run, he warns. “Focus on blood flow and warming up the tissue, not deep tissue massage on tight and sore muscles,” Gaige says.
Once you’re finished with the IT Band and quads, sit up and bend your knees and put your weight on one of your buttocks. Using only your weight, wiggle across any sore spots in your gluteal and hip rotator muscles to release any tension if the area, Gaige recommends. If you don’t find any tight spots in either of these places using just your body weight, try making the same moves using a foam roller or stick.
After logging your last miles, make time to deeply massage the sore spots while your muscles are still warm, says Gaige. “Start with broad strokes to loosen things up a bit before you move to a more point specific self-massage."
One of Floyd’s favorite post-run moves involves investigating sore spots along the tibia, or shin bone. From a sitting position, with the leg outstretched in front of you, grip on both sides of your shin bone, and rotate your ankle in every direction, while you move your hand up and down the muscles on the lower part of your leg, from your knee to your ankle.
Floyd also recommends hitting the glutes and adductors post run. Place a ball or foam roller under your glutes, then roll around to ease tight spots. For more leverage, cross one ankle on top of the opposite knee and lean into the leg with the bent knee, while continuing this rolling motion.
While massage shouldn’t feel like torture, you can expect some discomfort. After all, you’re loosening the fascia. That said, if you ever feel sharp pain, numbness or tingling, stop! “Either stop altogether or lighten up to a gentler self-massage,” says Gaige. If you are too aggressive too often, or you’re using hard tools like a foam roller or a lacrosse ball, you can overdo it. To avoid that, Gaige suggests allowing a day off after a vigorous self-massage to give the muscles a chance to recover. And remember, says Floyd, while foam rolling or self-massage can help keep muscle tissues aligned if done regularly, it can’t correct the overuse injuries that can require stretching or strength training to correct.
Floyd says that one of the most common mistakes is to not do self-massage regularly. “That’s the only way it’s effective in keeping muscle fibers aligned, and not knotted and adhered to each other,” she says. Gaige says that it’s far more effective to do a greater number of short sessions, rather than just a few intense ones.
“It is unlikely you are going to get all the tension out of an area in one self-massage session,” he says. “So short five to 10-minute bouts of self-massage a couple of times a day are usually more beneficial than one long more torturous session.”