How to Get the Most from Self Massage

Soft-tissue self massage has a lot to offer athletes. It can help improve mobility, decrease pain and improve recovery from intense exercise. The number of gadgets, gizmos and instruments continues to grow.

Before I get into the basics, a word of caution. If you have an injury, I recommend self massage in conjunction with treatment from a qualified health care practitioner such as a chiropractor, physical therapist or massage therapist. Working with the right professional can make your self massage efforts much more effective.

The do’s and don’ts

To reap the benefits, and avoid injury, here are some basics.

  1. Avoid inflamed or swollen areas. You could potentially further irritate the injured area. You might not cause additional injury but you could cause additional pain.
  2. Use caution near joints. It’s possible to cause irritation or inflammation of the tendons and joint tissues so go light in this area.
  3. Use caution on the low back and sides of the neck. The sides of the neck contain blood vessels and nerves which may not tolerate soft tissue work. Working on the sides of the low back can cause injury to the lower ribs. I know people who have fractured floating ribs while using a foam roller to perform self massage on this area.
  1. Keep the intensity to a 4-5 out of a scale of 1 to 10. Pain tolerances vary but a good rule of thumb: if you have to hold your breath in order to tolerate the pressure, you’re probably using too much. The typical athlete’s mantra–“if this much is good, more must be better”–doesn’t hold true in this case.Why use less pressure? You’ll be less sore later and that means your self massage is less likely to interfere with training. You can always come back tomorrow as long as you aren’t too aggressive today. This is a case of “slow and steady wins the race.” In my opinion, it’s a mistake to try to get rid of a knot or trigger point in a muscle all in one session.
  2. Keep the time to five minutes or less in any given area.
  3. Target the “hotspots” or areas within the muscle which feel more sensitive and tender than others. A quick scan of the area should quickly reveal where they are. There are usually less than three hotspots in any given region. I recommend working on the worst one first. This often reduces the sensitivity in the others. Two to five minutes on any given hotspot is usually plenty. I also recommend limiting the number of areas you work on in a day to 3 or less.
  4. Incorporating self massage into your routine

Self massage at home during downtime is probably the best option. If you are going to incorporate it into your pre-workout routine I recommend:

  1. General warm-up (e.g., walking, light core work).
  2. Self massage (see guidelines above).
  3. Stretching/mobility work, preferably specific to your functional limitations and the workout you planned for the day.
  4. Kick-ass workout.

Note: Steps 1-3 should take 10 minutes max. Don’t turn your warm up into your workout.

Remember to discuss your self massage habits with your health care practitioner who can guide you. More importantly, their treatment plan may also dictate how much they want you do do, particularly before an appointment. I can recall a number of instances when patients performed self massage to an area I was going to treat the next day. As a result, I was unable to do the planned work during their appointment.

The Takeaway

A good self-massage rule of thumb is 4x4x4: 4 minutes per area, 4 out of 10 intensity, 4 times per week. I’ve found this helpful in managing those workout aches and pains. But it’s not so much that it interferes with training.

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