My Secret to the Cheapest Sports Massage Around

self massage tools
Photo credit: Heather Neal

Since completing my first triathlon in at least three, if not four, years, I’ve been spending a lot more time with one of my best running buddies: the foam roller. If you haven’t met yet, let me introduce you. Especially if you’re a female and you like to run (or other high impact or knee-twisting activities), I suggest you get to know each other. Right now you may be distant strangers, or perhaps casual acquaintances. But if you have any kind of nagging pain or injury, you might want to consider becoming the best of friends. (Women are especially prone to knee injuries because of the fabulous way we’re built to birth children.)

I saw these funny little tubes of foam sitting on a shelf in a corner of the women’s only room in my gym long before I had any clue they were actually a useful tool. Not so much for working out, but for after working out, as a way to prevent or recover from injury. It’s creatively called a foam roller, as it’s a piece of foam you roll along your body.

Since I hurt my knee running a few years ago, my foam roller and I have become attached at the hip — almost literally. The minute the words “IT band injury” were even whispered by my doctor, shouts of “foam roll, foam roll, foam roll!” could be heard from all directions. Everyone I knew that had suffered through an IT band or knee injury recommended — almost demanded really — that I start foam rolling.

And those shouts were right: foam rolling makes a huge difference in injury recovery, and even more importantly — injury prevention.

Since learning about its magic-like powers, my foam roller has become almost as well traveled as I am. It’s accompanied me on many adventures from MD to VA and all over NC, but lugging a 3-foot hard foam tube around with you isn’t without its difficulties. Enter The Stick, the foam roller’s baby cousin.

Both the foam roller and the stick are meant to serve the same purpose: self massage. More precisely, myofascial release, aka “the poor girl’s daily sports massage.” Stretching is great, but it doesn’t get rid of knots in the muscles, called trigger points. Trigger points are thought to be areas in the myofascia of the muscle that are stiff, causing restricted movement of the muscle and joint. The foam roller and the stick can localize pressure to those areas and help “break up” the tissue. Sometimes the pain that you feel isn’t even near the associated trigger point. For example, I have a chronic knot on the side of my thigh that’s responsible for a huge chunk of my knee pain.  Self-myofascial release, or rolling, can also help increase blood flow and circulation, which can help promote healing.

The foam roller and the stick are both good options, but when to use which one? In the end it comes down to personal preference, but each does have its own benefits. Let the showdown begin:


The Foam Roller The Stick
Uses body weight for pressure Uses hands to push stick into muscle
Good for holding over trigger points Good for rolling across muscle
Comes in different levels of firmness Comes in different lengths
Good for use at home or gym Good for travel or portable use

For me, the stick is my travel buddy; the foam roller stays at home. (It’s actually a permanent fixture in my living room.) I prefer the foam roller for specific trigger spots and the stick for general muscle massage. The foam roller works better (for me) for hips, and the stick works better for the neck and back.

Sometimes it’s awkward to hold yourself up to use the foam roller, so the stick can come in handy for those times. I think it’s less awkward (and feels better) to use the stick for calves than the foam roller, but I think the foam roller feels better on quads and most certainly my IT band since it’s so sensitive. When I have something that really hurts to roll, I tend to use the foam roller so I’m forced to use body weight and not just stop pushing as hard with the stick.

Just to throw another option in the ring, for really specific tight spots and hard to reach areas, my go to tool for self-massage is a good old fashioned tennis ball. It’s great for the glutes (you can just sit on it) and calves, and feels like a little slice a heaven under the arch of your foot. (We used to do that during my prenatal yoga class every week — it was phenomal for my achy pregnancy feet.)

So until they start packaging up sports massage therapists and selling them for under $25, the foam roller, stick, and tennis ball it’ll be — my band of best buddies to keep injuries at bay. For suggestions on how to use these tools for self-myofascial release, ask a sports doctor, message therapist, or chiropractor, or take a peek online to refresh your memory if you’ve already gotten a lesson.

Are you a foam rolling fan or a stick fan?

Article Posted 3 years Ago

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