Roll, Regenerate, Revitalize

Rolling rules! The popularity of self-massage techniques has grown rapidly in the last several years and shows no signs of slowing down. Should you do it? And if you should – then how, when, and for the curious types, why?

Why Roll?

The stresses of any of a combination of hard training, chronic postures, or injuries can create unfavorable changes to your tissues that can make certain movements uncomfortable, limited, and restricted. Massage can play a role in improving this. What’s happening when you massage? There are three main benefits:

  1. Mechanical
  2. Neurological
  3. Hydration

The mechanical benefits of massage relate to actually breaking up adhesions and sticky tissues. Your muscles are meant to slide along each other smoothly. The muscles and surrounding fascia can develop adhesions in a number of ways. Massage actually breaks up those adhesions like getting the lumps out of dough. It’s similar to what happens when you start chewing a new piece of gum.

The neurological benefits happen when sensory organs in your muscles sense pressure and receive a signal from the brain to relax and release tension. This effect manifests when you hold static pressure on a sensitive spot rather than when you roll back-and-forth.

Think of your body like a large skin bag full of water (which is not that far from reality.) When you squeeze any part by putting pressure on it, you force liquid out, just like when you squeeze a sponge. When you release the pressure, new hydration rushes in, again like returning the sponge to water.

How to Roll

In general, there are three main types of self-massage techniques you can use:

  1. Roll and a Hold – similar to Swedish and lighter deep tissue massage
  2. Pin the Tool, Move the Muscle – similar to Thai massage
  3. Cross-Fiber Friction – similar to deep tissue

Roll and Hold – find a sensitive area and roll back-and-forth five times while breathing in and out with each roll. Upon completion of the fifth roll, find a responsive spot for a hold and hold the pressure on that spot to access the neurological benefits. Find a new section of muscle and repeat.

Pin the Tool, Move the Muscle – Hold pressure and create a massage effect by moving the muscle so that it slides over the pressure point. Flex and extend the joint slowly five times.

Cross-Fiber Friction – apply pressure and move the limb or the tool perpendicular to the direction of the muscle fibers (hence the term “cross-fiber”) five times.

Where to Roll

Short answer; anywhere that needs it. When you apply pressure, if it feels sensitive like a sore muscle, that’s probably an area that needs some attention. To get started, try some of the most common areas usually in need of regular massage:

  • Calf and Foot
  • Thigh (especially the outer thigh to inner part of thigh close to front)
  • Glute
  • Rear and Front of Shoulder
  • Upper Back (area surrounding the shoulder blade)

When to Roll

Short answer; whenever you can. At first, you may need daily or twice daily sessions to restore tissue health. This may be when the most sensitivity is experienced, but you’ll also noticed how rapidly the discomfort decreases with regular practice. As to the best specific time of day to do it, you have two options:

  • Prior to workout to prepare
  • After workout (or anytime) to regenerate and recover

There really isn’t a bad time to do this work if it is necessary. Doing it first thing in the morning affects tissues immediately before you’ve done much moving. However, this may not be the most appealing thing to do right after waking up.

If your posture, body alignment, and movement is significantly less than optimal (nicer than saying “you’re a hot mess”), then doing some of this work prior to exercise is, in my opinion, essential as this is when it is most critical to realign the body and restore healthier muscular coordination.

After the workout is can help with circulation to help flush out muscles that were just worked hard.

And if you’re watching a favorite TV show in the evening (it’s okay to admit that you watch TV), spend some time doing some self-massage work to get some physical benefit to your inactive time.

In my experience, there’s no bad time to do this kind of work so can try any and all of the above times and see which your body prefers. Your body is very smart and if you listen to it more and follow the wisdom of your body, you’ll derive more benefit from your efforts and enjoy them more.

What to Roll With

Anything from large rollers down to small balls can be used to provide self-massage. Larger tools like the commonly used large round rollers, cover a large surface area and in general, provide a less pinpoint pressure. Handheld stick-style tools like the Tiger Tail can be useful for hitting many areas without needing to get on the floor. While smaller tools like a tennis ball or similarly-sized massage ball provide more pinpoint pressure from the smaller surface area and can be good for reaching deeper areas or more isolated self-massage to superficial areas. Browse a selection of tools here.

A couple important tips:

  1. Your veins are a one way street – when using heavy pressure in the legs especially, try to move up the leg if possible. There are valves in your veins to keep the blood moving one way – up – so it’s best to drive blood flow in the direction of the valve flow to minimize chances of venous damage.
  2. It should feel “comfortably uncomfortable” rather than intensely painful. An intensely painful response creates a reaction from the body that causes the tissues to want to recoil. Additionally, a highly unpleasant experience will discourage regular participation in these activities.

It can also be helpful to schedule period regular therapeutic massage – not a pampering, spa massage. The reason is that even with great tools and daily effort on your part, nothing can replace the skilled hands of a massage therapist. Your individual self-massage work can help take smaller steps toward consistent change while your massage therapist can sense what areas need more work and so can likely provide a larger benefit in a single session. By adding some additional self-massage work, you will likely find that those same recurring knots that your therapist works on will start to diminish or may disappear entirely.


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