How do cyclists deal with pain and soreness? How do pros — racing hard in the grueling Tour de France — hop back on the bike day after day? They get leg massages — a lot of leg massages.
“Massage has always been a big part of recovery,” explained Sean 'Sully' Sullivan, an ex-pro and licensed massage therapist. “It has proven to help with their recovery and keep nagging injuries away.”
If you don’t have the time or budget for professional massages, you can still get similar results at home. Regular self-massage can optimize recovery and future performance, and we have all the tools you need to get back on the bike fresh.
Addressing common cycling injuries
I have been injured a lot and suffer from a few classic cycling maladies: tight IT bands, knee pain, and Achilles tendon pain.
“Overuse injuries like that are common,” Sully explained. “Tight IT bands cause IT band friction syndrome. Quadricep tightness and imbalance can cause patella misalignment and patella tendonitis. Achilles tendonitis is common too. Sometimes it’s caused by tight calves. Then, of course, there’s the classic tight back and neck from hours on the bike.”
“Prevention is always better than a cure,” he said. “Regular massage can keep these issues away and aid in recovery to get more out of your training. Make it a habit to work on your IT bands, quads, and calves after each training session. Keeping it regular will enable you to relieve your muscles without too much discomfort.
“After an exhaustive training session or race, be careful not to massage too hard. Gentle work is great after an intense effort because you don’t want to add more damage to sore muscles. If a big ride or event is coming up, have your last massage 2-3 days before. If you aren’t used to it, your legs can feel sore and ‘dead’ for a day or 2 after.
"Most importantly, try to get a professional bike fit. Massage can do a lot but poor bike fit is the main cause of a lot of injuries."
Foam rolling is the easiest and cheapest way to start self-massage. Foam rollers are cylindrical tubes made of compressed foam that come in different sizes and firmness levels.
“There are a lot of great tools,” Sully said. “But rollers are probably going to be your number one.”
Training for a marathon MTB race, I added foam rolling to my daily routine. Just working my tight IT bands regularly helped alleviate the knee and hip pain I experienced when increasing my riding volume.
I’ve been using the TriggerPoint GRID roller which has a rigid core to provide a bit more firmness and pressure. DIY enthusiasts can go to the hardware store and get a large section of PVC pipe. And if you want the fanciest roller on the market, Therabody’s Wave Roller adds vibration to help relax tight muscles.
Percussive therapy massage guns
Plenty of elite athletes use Theraguns and there are studies that point to the effectiveness of “percussive therapy” for improving mobility and preventing delayed onset muscle soreness. These studies are small, so take them with a grain of salt, but the results are promising.
“As a therapist, I wouldn't wholly rely on devices like this,” Sully says. “But they are easy to use and reduce the amount of strain on your hands and wrists. They are a great compliment to a regular massage regime.”
Several months ago I took home a top-of-the-line Theragun Pro and so far it does exactly what it claims. The adjustable head and interchangeable tips make it easy to precisely target any part of my body, even the center of my back. The custom speed options let me soothe my sore legs without excessive pain. And using the gentlest setting helps me warm up before hard rides.
It also connects via Bluetooth to a handy app that guides me during a session to apply the correct pressure and hit the right spots. Because it’s so effective and easy to use (I can do it on the couch), it’s been replacing the foam roller in my daily massage routine.
The most surprising benefit is how it has improved my sleep. I suffer from restless legs and my Polar Vantage says that most nights I get less than one hour of deep sleep. Therabody recommends spending two minutes on each major muscle group to “down-regulate” your nervous system before bed. I’ll hit my legs before bed and I find that I kick around less, fall asleep faster, and feel more rested the next day.
The Theragun does come at a price. The Pro model I’m using is — gasp — $599.00. Fortunately, there are four Theragun models at different price points. The more expensive models are quieter, have longer battery life, and have the power to continue operating when more force is applied. The Pro and Elite also have an OLED screen and a force meter.
The affordable Theragun Mini is the most popular model, but the Theragun Elite is the one I’d choose if I had to purchase again. The Elite provides enough power for my needs, has a lot of the same features as the Pro (I can live without the articulating head), and it's still quiet enough for me to use while watching TV.
Theraguns are the gold standard for percussive therapy massage guns, but there are some more affordable options out there. Researchers in the referenced mobility study used Hyperice’s Hypervolt massage gun.
Hyperice products are well reviewed and the best Theragun alternative. They lack the polish of Theragun but provide many of the same features including adjustable speed, interchangeable tips, and Bluetooth connectivity.
Be wary of cheap, no-name options because they often lack power and aren't effective. Well designed massage guns also produce to proper speed and amplitude and use closed-cell foam tips to prevent accidental tissue damage.
Of course, massage guns aren't required for good self-massage, and crusty old pros like Sully maintain that simple foam rollers are good enough for most riders. But if you ride a lot, want to recover as efficiently as possible, and have the budget, massage guns are worth it. I, for one, embrace this futuristic massage technology.
Photos courtesy of Therabody.
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