Every once in a while I have to ask myself why I chose a hobby that involves so much physical pain. In marathon running there is frequently pain while you are running, pain when you are done, and if things are really bad, pain the next day. I never hear people who paint or quilt complain about pain from their hobby. But then I can’t see myself sitting still for long periods of time to paint or quilt. I have to move.
Saturday was one of those days. I ran my longest training run – 20 miles – in preparation for the Berlin Marathon. I started my run early, hoping to beat the heat. My running spouse was off working a race for a charity so I was running solo. I arranged for my husband to meet me around Mile 10 with water, ice, and a banana. The last 6 miles were tough because there wasn’t any shade. My Transverse Myelitis doesn’t like the heat and I was starting to drag. Except for being hot, I didn’t feel that bad while I was running. Some dull aches but nothing extreme. When I finished my run, I had a few spots – lower back mostly – that reminded me that I had just run 20 miles. The next day was when I really felt the pain.
I asked Jessica, my physical therapist, to explain why it hurts the day after a long run or race. She started talking about actin, myosin, trigger points and fascia, and my head started to spin. From what I could gather, movement comes from the interaction of the actin and myosin. When you do something like run for 20 miles, you can end up with trigger points where the muscles go into a spasm (a contraction) from all the repetitive motion. Normal movement becomes painful or maybe not even possible, in the case of injury.
According to Jessica, massage is great for recovery and working out the trigger points that result from a long run. My hero, Meb Keflezighi, uses massage as a key part of his recovery. Unfortunately for me, my massage therapist, Jennifer, is not on call 24/7. When I can’t see Jennifer, I have to resort to Plan B – self-massage.
There are lots of self-massaging tools on the market. After my run on Saturday, I pulled out all the ones that I have in my closets. It was astonishing to see all the things that I have bought over the years to keep my muscles moving. Some were things I picked up at my local running stores but others were impulsive purchases made at race Expos. In my self-massage arsenal I have two different kinds of foam rollers that you can sit or lay on (both in multiple sizes); three different massage sticks; a massage ball; and one hand massage roller.
I drafted my husband for a fun product evaluation experiment. We tested the self-massage tools by using each of them on the same 6 areas of the body: calf, IT band, hamstrings, quads, glutes, and back. We used the tools on each area and then gave it a score, using a scale of 1 to 10. Here are our observations on each of the products (Disclaimer: these are our observations; your mileage may vary.) :
Pro-Tech Foam Roller: This roller is long and smooth. I have used this one to do some my PT exercises for my arm but not too much for self-massage because it is pretty hard. It is like rolling on a hard floor. Not very comfortable. Neither of us found that it helped much with any of the 6 areas because it didn’t seem to get too deep. Overall score: 2.17
The Grid: The Grid is another foam roller but with raised areas, or bumps, of different sizes. The bumps can get much deeper than the plain foam roller. You have to get into some unusual positions to use the Grid on some muscles so you have to have balance and some upper body strength. Both of us thought the Grid did a great job, though my husband felt it was uncomfortable on his back. Overall score: 8.50
The Marathon Stick: I think this was one of the first self-massage tools that I ever bought. It is a stick about 20 inches long with beads that move independently of each other. You can roll the stick over muscles to work out sore areas. Because it is flexible, it contours to areas of the body. The Marathon Stick doesn’t provide a deep massage like the Grid and, in my opinion, is only good for lightly massaging the legs. I saw videos on the Internet that show how to use the Stick on other parts of the body like the neck and back. I don’t have the flexibility with my right arm to use it that way. Compared to some of the other tools, my husband and I didn’t rate this one too high. Over all score: 4.0
The Hybrid Stick: The Hybrid Stick is very similar to the Marathon Stick except it has a single trigger wheel in the center that can reach deeper into a muscle. The trigger wheel made this tool score higher in our review. Overall score: 5.0
The RangeRoller Pro: This 16” stick is firmer than the other stick rollers that I have. It has 4 Trigger Treads ™ (similar to the trigger wheel on the Hybrid Stick) that can reach deeper into the muscles. Like the other stick rollers, I had difficulty using this on some spots due to my arm and we both found that it isn’t as helpful on the glutes. Both my husband and I gave the RangeRoller high marks for working our legs. Overall score: 6.5
The Orb Massage Ball: The Orb Massage Ball is a 5” nubby ball made by ProTec. I bought the Orb at an Expo this year. It appealed to me because of its small size. It fits into my carry-on. It works like the foam rollers. You can roll along the sore areas of your legs and even into your glutes. I thought it was a bit difficult to use on the outside of my calves but otherwise it was pretty effective. Overall score: 7.0
Addaday Marble Massage Roller: I bought this at an Expo last Spring. The 3 marbles can get deep without sharp pain. The Addaday roller fits easily in the palm of my hand so I can massage any place that I can reach. While it is not very helpful for massaging hamstrings or glutes, I think it works great on calves, quads, and the IT Band. Plus I can massage my neck and arms, areas that are still recovering from my broken arm. The small size makes this one very portable. I can toss it into my carry-on bag or even my purse for a quick leg massage when I am flying on the plane. I liked this one more than my husband did. Overall score: 6.0 (I would give it 7 just because of how portable it is.)
We summarized our observations:
- The more bumps or raised areas on the self-massage tool, the better the tool. The smooth foam roller just doesn’t give the same relief.
- Foam rollers that you can sit or lay on are better. You get the added benefit of your body weight to get deeper into the muscles.
- Portability is important when traveling. You can buy some of the foam rollers in smaller travel sizes but they still take up a good bit of valuable space in your suitcase or carry-on. I think the RangeRoller Pro, the Orb and the Addaday Marble Massage Roller are the best for trips. [Note: The Stick might be considered a potential weapon so when flying, put it in your checked baggage.]
- Different tools work better on different areas. In his book, Meb for Mortals, Meb mentioned that he uses a foam roller on his IT band and a ball on his glutes. We found that some tools worked better on some areas than others. Experimenting with different tools will tell you what works best for you.
- I don’t need to spend any more money on self-massage tools. I have enough. I just need to use them.
None of the self-massage tools we tested is a replacement for my massage therapist, Jennifer. She can make just about any ache or pain disappear with a 60-minute massage. Plus I enjoy chatting with her while she works the kinks out of my muscles.
Not sure how all this foam rolling works? Jenny Hadfield made this terrific video on how to use a foam roller. Check it out!