Massages can be a great way to ease muscle soreness, loosen up tight areas, relax, and lower the risk of injuries. But setting aside the time and money for a full-blown sports massage can be tough. Luckily there are a few quick and easy moves that you can do at home on a regular basis to take advantage of the benefits of massage.
“Rolling on devices like foam rollers and tennis balls is a cheap, effective way of doing self body maintenance,” says Chiropractor Jamie T. Raymond, D.C., of Raymond Chiropractic and Sports Injury Center in Maine.
“Spend more time finding and settling into the tender spots—or trigger points— that you find,” he adds. “Be willing to find the most painful angles and then stay there for at least 20 to 30 seconds, breathing, and giving the trigger point a chance to release. Wait for the spot to reduce in pain by about half, and then move on and find another, repeating the same process.”
More is not always better when it comes to pressure, says massage therapist Jeannine Foster, founder of Foster Wellness in Portland, Maine. “Going too hard is something I see clients do on a regular basis,” Foster says. “If it causes pain, and you’re holding your breath, have sweating palms, or are wincing, you’re probably using too much pressure."
Raymond recommends using a 10-point pain scale for pain.
When you settle into a trigger point, stay there until you get to a point of tolerable pain that feels like it would be a 6 on a scale of 1 to 10, he says. "This would be tolerable pain, but you wouldn’t want to go much deeper,” he says. Then wait 20 to 30 seconds—long enough for the pain to reduce by half to a level of 3. If the pain doesn’t ease up in 30 seconds, or if it gets worse, it might require professional help to determine what underlying biomechanical issue is keeping the muscle from releasing, he says.
It’s worth the time and money to set up a professional massage on a periodic basis. A massage therapist or sports injury specialist might be able to offer tips to deal with specific tough spots, that you might not find on your own. How often should you go? "That’s going to be determined by your unique biomechanics, running form, regular stretching routines, how much mileage you’re logging, how intense your workouts are, and how much time you spend sitting," says Raymond. When you’re in the heavier stages of training, you may feel like you need massage more than when you’re not logging so much mileage, or your workouts aren’t intense. If you’re working on a specific goal, such as recovering from an injury, it's better to go for a shorter session more frequently, "a 30 to 60-minute session weekly," says Foster. Ask your massage therapist about any special offers for regular clients. It never hurts to ask!
While foam rolling and massage is a helpful part of overall maintenance routine, it won’t address any underlying imbalances or biomechanical issues that cause trigger points in the first place. Trigger points tend to form in areas where there is increased stress, often in muscles that are working too hard because another muscle isn’t working hard enough. For example, a piriformis muscle in the glutes might feel irritated because it is overworking to compensate for a nearby glute muscle that isn’t strong enough. In that case, “relying on rolling alone (or massage) doesn’t really get to the root of the problem,” Raymond says. In that case, a good core and hip strengthening program might resolve the cause of the pain.
Maintain a healthy wholesome diet, which can help lower levels of inflammation that can exacerbate your aches and pains, says Raymond. Foods such as tomatoes, olive oil, walnuts and leafy greens have been found to fight inflammation.
After tough workouts, resist the temptation to sit on the couch. Instead, focus on moving around as much as possible to keep the joints, muscles, and tendons loose. Elevating your feet and putting your feet in cold water after a hard workout can also be helpful. “Sometimes just moving your body gently in a different way than running,” can help, says Foster. “An easy swim or gentle yoga poses can feel good.”
Let’s face it. A huge part of the relief you get from a massage is the time you have to tune out. During a massage, you don’t have to answer anyone else’s questions, emails, requests, calls, or texts. There’s no reason you can’t do all that at home. Commit to a 1-hour home time to chill out. Get some relaxing music, a candle or incense, and turn all your devices off and put them in another room. You might even do this in a bath or soak your feet in epsom salts.