No matter what sport you participate in, tight, injury prone muscles are a very common problem. Massage—done by yourself, by a partner, or by a professional—can greatly reduce the pain and tightness in muscles if performed with careful and correct technique. Learning the basics of effective massage is a valuable skill, since professional massages can be expensive and difficult to book. And while they are not a substitute for medical treatment in the case of an injury, massages can supplement more traditional means and have the added bonus of overall relaxation.
If you’re interested in learning the techniques of self or partnered massage, look no further! Here are some basics to get you started.
Self massage is one of the most effective physical therapy tools available. It is a cheap (free!) way to relieve pain, spasms, and tightness in muscles and easy to practice anywhere, at any time. While it’s more difficult than a partnered massage, with various hard-to-reach parts of the body, there are ways to make it easier.
For starters, here are a few small and inexpensive props you can use to make self-massage less difficult and more effective:
Your average, bright green tennis ball can double as a personal masseuse for any and all parts of your body. Simply place the ball underneath the area you wish to massage, then put your weight on the ball and roll back and forth.
For the spine, put the ball between your back and a wall, bending and straightening your knees to further manipulate the area. Sit with your legs out in front and the ball under your calf to relieve shin splints and tight Achilles’. Experiment by rolling on the ball in different ways to find what works best for you on each area.
Similar in technique and function to the tennis ball, a jacks ball (or a small bouncy ball available at the local grocery store) can be used to target small areas. The small size of the ball also creates a higher amount of pressure, which can be helpful in areas of severe muscle tension.
It is especially effective in relieving tightness and cramping in the feet: Stand up and put your foot on the ball, rolling it in between the crevasses of the bones in your feet. It may be painful at first, but will eventually decrease tension and spasms in that area.
Used commonly by physical therapists, foam rollers are an inexpensive and very effective tool. They are made from a firm but flexible material and provide a relatively large working area. While you can use a foam roller on any body part by simply placing the roller underneath and adjusting your weight, they are especially effective for larger muscles, such as the iliotibial band and quadriceps.
For example, to treat a tight iliotibial (IT) band: Lie on your side, with the roller placed underneath the IT band that runs up the lateral side of the upper leg. Shift your body back and forth. You can adjust your weight on the roller to increase or decrease the pressure.
Available at many bath and body stores, wooden rollers are both inexpensive and very adaptable for use on any part of the body. The grooves in the roller provide various amounts of pressure, and its slick wooden surface is easy to keep in place while you roll. Wooden rollers are especially useful for relieving tightness in the arches of the feet, as the rounded shape adjusts well to the bends and grooves in curvier muscle areas.
Wooden Back Scratcher
Wooden back scratchers are not usually used for deep-pressure massage. However, the small fork-like prongs are effective in reaching smaller spots, particularly in the mid and upper back, as the extended handle allows the user access a greater range of the body. Wooden back-scratchers are usually available at drug or bath and body stores.
Though performing a self massage with your hands can be limiting, tightness in the lower body (the area more easily accessible by the hands) can be greatly helped by the use of manual, prop-free massage. Experiment with different kinds of touches and varied amounts of pressure on the sore area to find the most effective way to relieves tension and pain.
Here are some basic guidelines to follow, whether you’re interested in learning how to give a great massage or in simply finding out more about the practice:
Never assume that people prefer high pressure, deep tissue massages. Start with a light amount of pressure, working the muscles gently and slowly. Check in with your partner to see if he/she wants more or less pressure, and make sure you know what areas need the most work.
The recipient of the massage should be able to relax and not talk too much during the session. It is therefore a good idea to develop one word signals to use before you begin. For example, use “pressure” as a signal to push more, or “enough” to indicate a softer touch. This prevents the person getting the massage from having to worry about communicating, while still being clear and concise in their direction.
Don’t Dry Out
It may be quicker to use dry, lotion-less/oil free hands during a massage, but doing so will cause additional friction between skin surfaces. Friction, in turn, causes pain for both the masseuse and client and may result in red marks or bruising.
Instead, try rubbing some massage oil (available at the local drug store in various types—the scent/sensation is irrelevant, as it is the oil itself that is important) on your hands and your partner’s skin before beginning. If you’re out of oil, try lotion or Vaseline. Both will lubricate the surfaces of the skin and allow for a more comfortable, friction-free massage.
Set the Atmosphere
Candles and music of the rain forest are nice in spas, but not necessary every time you give/receive a massage. However, you should try and make sure the area is quiet and free of distractions. This allows the masseuse to concentrate on their work and the patron to fully relax. Breathing through the pressure and into tight areas is vital to the success of the massage, so keep distractions to a minimum and encourage full relaxation.
Most athletes who need a massage have a couple (if not many) specific areas that require attention. Don’t feel like you have to get to everything in a set amount of time—it’s better to focus on one area rather than rushing through the whole body. If you’re not able to get through everything in one sitting, don’t worry—it’s both normal and acceptable to focus on only a few areas of the body per session.
Types of Touch
Every massage is different, as is what the body needs at any given time. That is why it is important to utilize different kinds of touch to treat different symptoms in different areas. There’s no set rule, just experiment and see what feels best for you and/or your partner:
The most common kind of touch, kneading is a slow and deep grabbing motion used to loosen muscles. It usually involves a high amount of pressure as the masseuse pushes and squeezes to release the area. This is an excellent technique for relieving pain and tension in the iliotibial band, the band of muscle running from hip to knee on the outside of the leg.
Rubbing techniques can vary wildly. Depending on what is needed, it can be a gentle touch or a deep pressure movement, used over large muscles or concentrated in small areas. Typically the entire hand is used to rub the body.
This technique, using the fingers to tap the muscles, is seldom used, but still quite effective. It pleasantly stimulates the nerves, culling feeling and circulation to the affected area. The pressure is usually light, akin to raindrops gently hitting a window.
One of the most commonly recognized massage touches, the shiatsu, or chopping touch, uses the outside of the palm to apply quick bursts of force to the muscles. The pressure used in this technique can vary, but is usually moderate. It works well at the start of the massage to stimulate circulation in the areas requiring attention.
Drawing the nails back and forth over the muscles is not the most effective means of relieving muscle tension; however, it is a great way to end a massage, since scratching can gently stimulate nerve sensation and relieve any lingering pain or discomfort in the sore muscles.
Make sure to trim your nails if you know you’re going to be giving a massage to yourself or someone else in the near future. Nails that are too long, jagged, or uneven can be painful and distracting during a massage.
A circular push utilizes the heel of the palm to apply high pressure to the area. This is one of the more intense techniques, so use it sparingly and only on very tight, already warm muscles to avoid leaving bruises or causing soreness.
The swipe technique is named for replicating the motion of sliding a debit card through a machine at a store. To use this method, the masseuse slides the outside of the palm in long and short brush strokes over the client’s skin, varying in both pressure and duration. By switching both the stroke length and the area covered, the masseuse stimulates circulation all over the body.
Whether you’re giving yourself a massage or using your skills on someone else, here are some additional tools you may want to consider using:
Placing a hot towel on an area of the body you’re about to massage stimulates circulation and relaxes the muscles, loosening tension. You can warm a towel many different ways:
- Purchase a towel warmer for between $75 and $150 from any bed and bath store.
- Soak the towel in cold water, then wring it out. Microwave it for 20 to 30 seconds, allowing it to cool for an additional ten seconds (or until it feels warm but not too hot) before applying it to the body.
- Hang a towel in the bathroom. Run a hot shower and let the towel absorb heat from the emanating steam.
Warming and Aromatherapy Oils
Available at the local drug store (usually near the bath products), massage oils now come in various types, all with varied benefits. If you’re unsure of what to buy, go for the bottles of unscented oil without any additional features. Here are some of the more available oils:
- Warming Oils: These oils heat up when brought into contact with the skin. The heat can help stimulate circulation and relax muscles. But make sure you don’t use a large amount of this oil right away, as some people can have a negative reaction (like rashes and skin irritation).
- Aromatherapy Oils: These types of oil are scented with additional plant and flower extracts designed to benefit the respiratory system. Scents like peppermint and lavender are believed to promote relaxation and deeper breathing, though it is difficult to conclusively prove these benefits.
- Arnica Gel: Used frequently as an organic anti-inflammatory rub for sore muscles, arnica gel is made from the extract of a plant found in the northwest United States. Most gels also include vitamin E and vitamin A, which soothe the skin. The gel delivers a cooling, tingling effect that helps to mask soreness and discomfort.
It takes time to feel comfortable with massage techniques, but with consistent practice and the will to learn, you can become a skillful and talented masseuse.