Recovery is where the magic happens. Sure, your workout is the glamorous part of your get-fit goals (what with the opportunities for brag-worthy selfies featuring dripping sweat and killer yoga poses), but real change happens after your routine.
Effectively recovering from exercise is one of the most important things you can do for your body. It’s not just that it sucks to be sore and tired (that’s a given), but your body actually experiences the positive changes from exercise during the recovery process, not your workout.
In other words, without recovering properly, you’re basically shortchanging all of the hard work you do at the gym. Nobody wants that.
Foam rollers are good, but they’re not always right
Foam rolling, a form of self-massage that helps reduce delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) while loosening up fascial adhesions that cause pain and limit range of motion, is an excellent way to help facilitate post-workout recovery. But sometimes foam rollers just aren’t good enough. Although their stiff, slightly rounded surfaces work wonders for larger areas, such as massaging the full length of your hamstrings or upper back, sometimes you need tools that allow you to dig into smaller regions, targeting knots and easing into grooves a foam roller can’t effectively reach.
The good news is there are lots of everyday items and mass-marketed products you can put to the test to get the best self-massage of your life.
1. Lower body: Compression gear
There are about a million compression garments on the market that make pretty big claims regarding improved exercise performance. Despite some mixed study results, there’s really only one scientifically confirmed performance-related benefit to these garments: recovery.
High-quality compression gear worn post-exercise helps your body circulate blood through the recently worked muscles, delivering key nutrients to tired cells while flushing away waste. The result is reduced muscle soreness and quicker recovery.
Don’t assume all compression leggings are created equal, though. Anyone can call a pair of spandex compression leggings. What you want is strong and structured material that’s been designed specifically for performance recovery. Try CEP’s Women’s Recovery+ Pro Tights ($150), or for a lower-profile option, give their tall Recovery+ Socks a try ($50).
2. Feet and forearms: Golf balls and frozen water bottles
You may not spend a lot of time thinking about your feet and forearms, but these bad boys do a lot of work, and when they start complaining about all the work you’ve asked of them, your whole world comes grinding to a halt. After a tough run or a challenging strength training session, go ahead and give them a little TLC. Standard foam rollers are simply too big for these smaller areas. Instead, place a golf ball on a table, and roll it under your forearm, increasing pressure slightly when you find a tight spot.
Try rolling a frozen water bottle under your foot for a cold therapy massage. “A frozen water bottle has the perfect shape, density and temperature to massage your foot,” says Ellen Thompson, a personal trainer at Blink Fitness. “The curvature fits perfectly along the bottom and sides of the foot while the density of the ice allows for self-myofascial release, which means the massage places pressure down onto the tight muscles and improves blood and lymphatic circulation as you roll it along your foot. The cold temperature helps reduce inflammation of worked muscle.”
3. Calves: Tennis balls
I love foam rolling my calves, especially after jumping rope or doing other forms of plyometric training, but sometimes it’s hard to dig into the muscle to isolate smaller knots. I’ve also discovered through trial and error that some of the other tools I use to isolate knots — lacrosse balls, golf balls and softballs — feel overly aggressive on my overworked calves. Instead, I turn to the cushy surface of a tennis ball. The rounded surface is the perfect size for digging into knots. Because the ball is hollow and the surface is flexible, it gives more, reducing the pressure used during the massage.
Rather than rolling the ball up and down vertically under your calves as you would a foam roller, isolate an area toward your foot, and move your calf laterally across the ball and then in small circles over the ball for a more specific massage. Once you’ve targeted one spot, move the tennis ball farther up your calf, and perform the movements again.
4. Quads and hamstrings: Rolling pin or stick roller
There’s certainly nothing wrong with using a foam roller on your quads and hamstrings, but frankly, it’s not always convenient. To roll out your legs, you have to get down on the ground and then push and pull yourself over the surface of the roller. Unless you’re at home or have space at the gym, it’s a tough exercise to pull off.
Without getting down on the ground (you can sit at your desk, on the couch or in the car), you can enjoy the same style of self-massage by using a rolling pin or a specially designed stick roller, such as Trigger Point Performance Therapy’s GRID STK ($35), to manually roll away tension and tightness in your legs. In addition to this type of roller’s convenience, the size of the rolling cylinder is smaller than a traditional foam roller, which means the surface area touching your skin at any time is also smaller, allowing for a more targeted, intense massage. This is perfect for after a long training run or group cycling session.
More: Foam roller exercises
5. Hips and glutes: Softballs or softball-sized roller balls
Sometimes back pain is back pain, but it’s not unusual for lower back pain to originate with tight hips and glutes. Although foam rollers are excellent at providing a broad massage for these areas, different sized balls are much more effective at digging into knots, particularly in soft tissue located near bony areas in and around the hips. Softballs are an excellent size. They’re large enough to provide a wider surface area for massage than smaller tennis and lacrosse balls, but they still offer more specificity than foam rollers as you search and destroy kinks.
Likewise, the Hyperice HYPERSPHERE Massage Ball ($150) offers the size, shape and feel of a softball-sized foam roller but with the added benefit of targeted vibration that helps loosen up muscle adhesions. If you’re prone to low back and hip pain, particularly if you do a lot of running, the combined effects of self-massage and vibration can do wonders for exercise recovery.
6. Back: P-Knot and massage blocks
You have a lot of area to cover on your back, so chances are you have at least a few small kinks that could use a good massage. If you don’t have a masseuse or a good friend who’s willing to work out your knots with their hands, P-Knot ($50) and Massage Blocks Block Set Pro ($42) are your best bets.
Courtney Mann, a personal trainer with CrossFit Tel Aviv, suggests the P-Knot for any area along the spine. “There are two large balls connected with what amounts to a bar in the center, so when used, there’s no pressure placed directly on the discs of the spine. You simply place the P-Knot anywhere along your spine so the balls target the erector muscles, then place your arms behind your head. Carefully lean back slightly, using gravity to increase pressure and loosen up your tight erectors. Perform 10 to 20 repetitions at each tight spot with a two- to five-second pause as you lean into the P-Knot.”
You can use the P-Knot on other areas of your back and along your shoulder blades, but if there’s a particularly tight spot, the Massage Blocks Block Set Pro is your best bet. These domed tools come in three different sizes as part of the set, and each features a flat bottom, preventing the block from rolling around, which allows for more direct, sometimes intense, pressure to loosen up tightness. Also, because they feature flat bottoms, you can place them against a wall or chair and lean into them rather than rolling over them, which makes them more versatile than standard foam rollers or balls.
7. Shoulders, neck and chest: Lacrosse ball or therapy ball
The shoulders, neck and chest can get particularly tight, so using a tool that allows for strong, highly specific pressure is key. Lacrosse balls are the perfect shape and size for digging into tight knots, but you can also use tools such as Trigger Point Performance Therapy’s MBX Massage Ball ($20) for the same purpose. The extra firm EVA foam allows for strong pressure, particularly in areas with dense tissue. Plus, it’s small enough to throw in a bag for a quick self-massage while waiting for your kids in the pickup line at school — exactly when you need a little tension release, amiright?