Massage guns are all the rage in the recovery tool market. But is a massage gun worth the price tag? How exactly do you use one – and do you need a massage gun to optimize your running?
A massage gun is a handheld percussive massage instrument. Its appearance resembles a nail gun, hence the name. Vibration technology is nothing new; research on percussive massage dates back to the 1960s. But what exactly does it do?
How a Massage Gun Works
A massage gun is different than a foam roller. Foam rolling provides myofascial release, which often addresses adhesions in the muscle fascia. A massage gun applies local vibration to a muscle, which elicits a response from the central nervous system. It can result in activation of a muscle and increased proprioception (awareness of the movement of that muscle). For running, a massage gun can aid in both pre-run warm-up and post-run recovery.
How to Use a Massage Gun
Many massage guns (such as the Actigun) come with explicit instructions on how to properly use that gun. Always read the instructions first, especially if the massage gun has multiple attachments and settings.
Generally speaking, you want to begin with a lower setting until you can observe how your body responds. How long you use it on a particular muscle depends on the setting, which muscle, and your intended purpose (see below). Longer is not better! As with foam rolling, do not be overly zealous with your massage gun, as that could actually elicit more soreness.
The Benefits of a Massage Gun
Percussive massage offers two major benefits: reduction of post-run (or lift) soreness when used after exercise and improvement in performance when used before exercise.
That’s right – some recovery tools are best used before you run as part of a dynamic warm-up, not after!
So while you may traditionally think of recovery tools as something to use after a run, it is worth trying a massage gun before a run. You may experience an improved range of motion and a possible improvement in running performance. However, longer massage bouts do not improve performance. Spend no more than 1-2 minutes on any given muscle, particularly if you are using it for a performance boost.
Research indicates that percussive massage may improve range of motion; in particular, a 2020 study in the Journal of Sport Science and Medicine found that a 5-min percussive massage on the calves elicited a large increase in range of motion of the foot and ankle. For injury-prone athletes, improved range of motion before a run can be beneficial.
When you use a massage gun as part of your recovery routine, it does not replace foam rolling. Rather, it is best used in conjunction with foam rolling to reduce muscle soreness. A 2017 study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology found that 15 minutes of percussive massage provided both immediate and short-term relief to muscle soreness. It’s worth noting that muscle strength did not improve; you may feel better, but you still need to take time before your next hard workout!
Contraindications to Massage Gun Usage
Do not use a massage gun if:
- You are on blood thinners
- You bruise easily
- You have a loss of nerve sensation (diabetes, neuropathy, etc)
- You have an active injury (sprain, strain, fracture, etc)
- Using one hurts
It should go without saying, but never apply the massage gun over a vital artery (such as the neck) or abdomen.
A massage gun is not used as an injury treatment tool. In fact, using a massage gun an acute injury such as a sprain or stress fracture could worsen the injury.
Is a Massage Gun Worth the Cost?
Let’s be honest: running is not a cheap sport and massage guns are expensive. And not every runner needs one! You want to ensure you are training smart (and if that’s the problem, hire a coach first), strength training (and if that’s a hindrance, invest in a home gym first), and taking care to sleep well, eat well, and take proper rest days.
Once you have those bases covered and you want a little something extra, then consider a massage gun.
Is a Massage Gun Necessary?
In short, no. A massage gun will not replace recovery protocols such as sleep, good nutrition, and a well-programmed training progression that includes rest days. It’s not at all essential to reach your running goals. However, if you are taking care of the primary steps of recovery and want a little something extra, a massage gun could be a fun extra tool in your running recovery toolbox.