Massage makes you a cyclist. It’s not just the images of pro riders sitting on the tailgate of their team’s station wagon minutes before the start getting a light pre-race rub, nor the scenes of them clad in nothing more than a towel having their legs worked over post race, nor the training advice in countless books to put your legs up post-ride and massage them yourself; it’s the idea that you’re accepting wisdom as old as cycling itself. Even a short between race rub ties all bike racers together in a single act.
Ever since we first heard about massage aiding in recovery, we were intrigued. After working yourself to exhaustion, have someone else work your muscles back to health. Made sense. It seemed like just an extension of the idea behind warming up and cooling down, or recovery rides. Saw how to perform self-massage in a book. Put our legs up on a wall and tried it out.
Maybe others had no problem performing massage on ourselves, but we did. We had no idea how hard to push, press, or knead. Or which techniques to use. And we were always confused about whether the strokes were supposed to be pushing away from the heart or towards. And then we had no idea for how long. Even if we knew all that, we were concerned that we were working our hands and arms too hard when we should be relaxing. Even in this modern era of how-to videos, we can find self-massage, but our essential questions are left unanswered
While we were initially skeptical of Trigger Point Performance Therapy products, largely because of the “inspirational” quality of some of their video pitches, there was one aspect to the products we thought offered promise. In many of the exercises, you’re using body weight to create pressure. This appeared to take the guesswork out of how hard to knead, rub, or squeeze. We have tried a number of massage aids, including The Stick, but none of them help determine how hard to work muscles.
Maybe it has something to do with how we ride, but since we pedal ourselves into the ground to fatigue our muscles, we expect that a hard rub is the way to return the muscles to health. Not sure why we came to this conclusion, perhaps it was the twin experience of pain and relief that a hard rub yields. And this could the result of some of our earliest massages, which were at the hands of itinerant massage therapists who followed stage races.
All this is written knowing that there is considerable debate as to what massage actually does for a body. Getting to the bottom of that question is hard. The body of anecdotal evidence for its benefit is huge; the body of tested evidence is small. We don’t believe all the claims about massage, and there are some extravagant claims made, but we believe it can benefit a tired body. We look at it the way we look at stretching. There is some doubt as to whether or not stretching is beneficial, but in our experience we feel better after both.
The Trigger Point Performance Therapy Starter set comes with a foam block, a Footballer, and a Massage Ball. The block is 10cm tall by 13.5cm deep by 21.5cm wide. The main purpose of the block is to support the Footballer. The Footballer is about 16cm wide, so it fits comfortably on the block. The Massage Ball is approximately 6.5cm in diameter. The reasons these components were assembled together is so you can work on what the TPPT philosophy identifies as the most important supporting muscles in your body, the calves, the glutes, and the pecs.
The set is packaged in a mesh bag with three pages of instructions. The bag makes the set easy to transport. The instructions do a decent job of showing how to use the Footballer and Block as well as the Massage Ball. The calf exercises are very easy to perform. Using the weight of one leg on top of another makes determining how hard to “push” very easy. The Massage Ball piriformis exercise looks painful in the picture. You’re basically sitting with one cheek resting on the ball and most of your body weight pressing down. The ball can also be utilized by putting it in front of your pectoral muscles and leaning on a wall. Compared to sitting on the ball, this neither seemed nor was as painful. It also shows an exercise for a TPPT tool that isn’t included in the set, the Quadballer, where you lie on your stomach and work the Quadballer against your quadriceps muscles. We read poorly and the Quadballer looks like an extra-wide Footballer, so we assumed we could use it on our quads as well. The smaller size of the Footballer makes performing this exercise tricky, but it can be done.
The TPPT folks suggested performing a 5-7 minute routine before riding and then again at night an hour before retiring. Do calves, piriformis, pecs, and go. So we did it. A minute on each calf where we slowly rolled the Footballer back and forth under our calf. Then a minute with the Massage Ball under each cheek. Then a minute with the ball rolling against our pecs.
An extra exercise was also suggested by the Colleen Parham at TPPT. A psoas-loosening routine where you start standing up, rolling the massage ball gently against your stomach 1/4″ below the navel, then lying down with the ball in the same spot and slowly moving the body over the ball. “Lay down on the floor and place the ball under the belly about 1/4″ from the belly button. Lay completely flat, take a deep breath in, breath out. Take a deep breath in, raise your upper body up in a cobra style position, lower down. Repeat so that you breath in, out, breath in, lift to cobra, breath, out, breath in, then pull your upper body forward by lowering your shoulder blades down, breath out. Lower back down. Next, repeat that full sequence so that you breath in, out, breath in, lift to cobra, breath, out, breath(e) in, then pull your upper body forward by lowering your shoulder blades down, breath out, breath in, lift the same side leg which the ball is on. Breath out, then lower back down. Repeat this final sequence again.”
The funny thing about stretching routines is most people generally avoid the ones they find uncomfortable or useless, often claiming the latter is the former. We didn’t feel much benefit either during or after rolling the Massage Ball against our pecs, so that’s one we dropped after a few days.
However, we did find other uses for the Massage Ball. The ball fits pretty comfortably in our hand. Cup the hand ever-so-slightly and there’s a nice pocket for the ball to sit. Have the ball in hand and press against a muscle and we could apply pretty good pressure without using an undue amount of arm strength. And we didn’t have to work our fingers at all. In particular, we’d roll our calves, then the piriformis, then take the ball and work the outside of the quadriceps, the inside, then even get to the hip flexors. Felt pretty good, particularly after a hard ride.
Using the ball under a cheek was indeed painful to start. But we noticed that it followed a trajectory we’re familiar with from being massaged. That is that our first reaction to the pressure was to try to minimize the pressure by lifting our body with our arms. Then, it was to tense the muscle(s) the ball was working against. Then, finally, after several sessions, it felt like we could let our entire body weight rest on the ball and we had no muscle tension anywhere near it. At this point, the exercise began to feel good. Also, know that loose clothing and using the Massage Ball underneath your glutes is not a good combination; the material wraps around the ball, making it harder to move.
The experience working our piriformis reminded us both of the difficulty and benefits of massage. Getting back into the swing of regular massage before seeing masseurs during stage races made the massages seem “easier” as if we were relaxing more during the massage and felt better post-massage rather than having our first massage in months on the day of the prologue. We’re of the mind that the massage can be “deeper,” more beneficial, if we can completely relax when our muscles are being worked.
The calf exercise neither felt particularly good nor bad, but it was easy to do and seemed to loosen up our calves pretty well. It’s the kind of thing you could do while reading; just prop up one leg, have your back against a wall or sofa and just lightly exercise. And since the calves represent first major component of balancing while standing on two feet, having this area loose is no small thing.
We performed the simple routine both before riding and land later at night, shortly before bed for two weeks. And then performed exercises on what seemed to be an “as needed” basis for another few weeks. Our legs felt better, a bit looser post-routine. We got on the bike a bit looser and felt a bit looser going to bed. We didn’t notice any performance gains, or losses, but at the same time, riding hard well is at least somewhat a function of feeling good. And as we’ve been switching shoes and other bike parts a fair amount lately, our legs have taken a heavier beating than usual.
While incorporating the Trigger Point Performance Therapy Starter Set into our daily routine is probably the most effective way for the exercises to work, we’re finding that difficult. We’re definitely doing it after hard rides and races, and will probably not only do this for some time, but take the tools on the road with us when we’re doing stage races or riding-heavy vacations. Still, for even the occasional block of daily exercises to work, we probably need to keep doing these exercises a few times a week, like on interval and race days.