There are many reasons why runners need to integrate a self-massage regimen into their regular routine. It’s easy to forget about the importance of self-massage until you’re injured or perhaps sore and recovering from a race. But if you are proactive with self-massage, you can actually prevent many injuries, reduce soreness and help keep your body performing optimally.
Because our internal muscles and organs are wrapped in a plastic-wrap-like substance called myofascia, one tight muscle can pull on nearby fascia, which can lead to a slight misalignment and disrupt the integrity of the entire system. On the other hand, increased mobility results in increased efficiency and stability, which allow for faster running with less risk of injury.
One often overlooked reason for a self-massage routine is to help muscles relax prior to exercising. Think of it this way: If you are tense before going into a meeting, it’s hard to concentrate and be the best version of yourself. I used to diligently do my physical therapy exercises to fire up my glutes for a hip injury that plagued me. After a while it seemed that the muscles weren’t responding to the exercises the same way. What I was missing was the massage portion of the routine. Some muscles are so bound up that they are in what seems to be a permanent state of contraction. In order to get them functioning properly, you need to nudge them a bit to let go.
Some of the major and minor muscles runners need to massage on a regular basis are addressed below. Keeping these muscles loose will aid in hip flexion, optimal breathing, efficiency in the hip swing and hip extension phases, and stability of the hip and knee.
Two often overlooked major muscles involved in hip flexion are psoas and iliacus muscles located in the hips and lower abdomen. Lunges with arms stretched above in a power pose help stretch these two muscles. Squeeze your glutes during that stretch; when an opposing muscle is engaged, the other can release more easily.
Stretch both arms overhead and lean to the right to stretch the left psoas and then lean to the left to stretch the right psoas. Because the left and right psoas muscles are located on a diagonal (making a triangle behind our gut), they are best stretched with a tilt to the left or right.
The rectus femoris quad muscle is the hip flexor that gets the most attention. Because of its size, they are most easily self-massaged with a foam roller or a massage stick. Be sure to roll along the entire length of the fibers and roll over where the muscles cross the joint. Roll both lengthwise and crosswise.
Plantar Flexion/Hip Extension
Make sure to massage the muscles that are engaged during the push-off phase of a new stride—the hamstrings, glutes, calves and feet.
The hamstrings are most easily massaged with a smaller roller, like the compact RAD roller, or tennis ball(s) to roll out knots. To create a double-ball roller, put two tennis balls in a sock and tie it off at the end so the balls are snug. Be sure to roll over the hamstring insertion point at the ischial tuberosity (more commonly called your sitbones).
The glutes (maximus, medius, minimus) and smaller muscles like the piriformis get ropey and can pull the sacrum out of alignment if not rolled out. While they can be addressed manually, they are more easily and effectively massaged with small rollers and balls (tennis, lacrosse, golf). Roll and drop in to the tissue when you find a tight spot, but don’t ever sit on a ball for more than five seconds. This cuts off blood flow to the area and that prevents the goal of healing.
Tight calves can lead to plantar fasciaitis and shin splints. They can easily be massaged with your fingers. Find tender spots and press until the pain dissipates. Release and then press deeper. Or use a small roller, stick, golf ball or massage tool. The same manual methods or tool massage can be used for the plantar flexors on the bottom of the feet. Try using frozen golf balls.
Runners don’t often think about massaging muscles key to efficient breathing. The pecs (major and minor) can be rolled out with foam massage balls or a tennis ball. Try pinning the ball against a wall with your body and roll up and down.
Intercostal and diaphragm massage is good to help create space for breath to expand in all directions. Wrap your fingers under your ribcage like you are going to peel it away but instead feel with your fingertips for and press against adhesions as you breathe into the finger pressure. To create more space in your rib cage, reach between your ribs with a finger or two and twist like you are turning a key.
The subscapularis muscle (located under your scapula) can be reached by rolling the lateral strip just below your armpit, arm extended above you, up and down on a foam roller. This muscle is a medial rotator, and when it is tight, it causes shoulder rounding, which in turn collapses the chest.
Manually release the scalenes and sternocleidomastoid muscles in your neck by gently kneading them with your fingers. If these are tight, they constrict your breathing passage.
When adductors get tight, it’s usually a symptom of a greater hip instability issue. These tender awkward-to-reach muscles don’t get the attention they deserve, so roll them out with either a foam roller or even a rolling pin. As with massaging the hamstrings, be sure to press up against the insertion points along the pubic bone to help the muscles release.
Another good reason to roll out the quads is to prevent them from getting “stuck” to the IT band which crosses the knee joint. Roll all the way up the lateral aspect of the leg, from the knee to the top of the hip. By doing this, you roll over TFL (tensor fascia latae) and gluteus maximus, which both insert into the IT band. The goal is to make sure the layers of tissue can slide across each other freely so the IT band doesn’t tug at the knee (a chronic area of complaint for runners). Rolling on massage balls or tennis balls balls (or even using the edge of a dull knife) can help break up specific knotty tissue.