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Craving a massage? Try loosening up with a recovery class instead

In this series, fitness pros investigate how exercise trends measure up to the hype.

If your body craves a massage, a "recovery/release" class might be for you. As an athlete, I have experienced how tight muscles contribute to injury, so I was curious to review the class. I brought my mom (64 and active), client Isa (64 and managing post-car-accident-related aches) and friend Leanne (35 and very active) to "Active Release" at Ultimate Athletics in Toronto.

Many studios offer weekly "recovery" classes. Others offer one-off workshops for those wanting to learn to use the appropriate equipment. To find a class, Google some combination of "fitness class" plus "yoga tune-up balls," "active release," "foam roller" or "recovery."

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The promise

Ultimate states their class releases "muscle tension" throughout the body; it is the "answer" to sore muscles. Every class will be unique, but the intention is uniform: to mobilize and massage muscles and fascia, usually using small balls and a foam roller. Fascia encases and connects your muscles. To understand the importance of manipulating fascia, tie a big knot with the right-hand portion of your shirt. When you move your left arm, the knot – such as tight fascia – restricts motion. Releasing the knot – as with rolling out fascia – increases motion.

What to expect

We started on our back with the roller horizontally under our pelvis, legs up. We rocked our pelvis side to side to massage our glutes (bums). I basically salivated during this. The release felt amazing. We then "rolled out" (massaged) our upper back, quads and IT bands with the roller. To "roll out," place the roller on the floor and the body part to be massaged on the roller. Move your body up and down to massage the designated area. We then used small balls to massage around our shoulder blades, armpits and glutes. Think of the foam roller as broad massage strokes and the balls as the therapist's fingers or elbow. By the end, I felt – in a positive way – relaxed and ready for a nap. However, I have done all the exercises innumerable times and therefore wasn't worrying (unlike my guests) that I was doing something wrong.

Throughout the class we were told, "It hurts; that is a good thing" – not a phrase I am a fan of without context. The sensation of rolling is unique, but there is a difference between "positive" and "negative" pain. You should feel a massage as you uncover adhesions (positive pain), but you should never feel dizzy (as Isa did) or anything akin to electricity and/or numbness. Nothing should be sharp enough to take your breath away.

The verdict

The format offers a relatively inexpensive way to massage and release muscles – a huge positive. Everyone I know could use increased mobility and massage.

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Participants will benefit most if they pepper exercises learned in class into daily life. Like drops in a bucket, small amounts of self-care add up. Use a small ball against a wall at the office or lie on the roller as you watch TV.

Another positive, as with yoga and Pilates, is that recovery classes complement more intense workouts. Exercise is hard on the body. It is only a positive stimulus when the body gets the tools needed for recovery, such as massage and stretching. Leanne said that if you dislike yoga (as we both do), but need flexibility and mobility work, recovery classes are ideal because they offer the benefits of yoga without the yoga.

My three exercise musketeers and I appreciated that the exercises were potentially extremely beneficial, but everyone agreed the workout was deceptively tricky and further instruction and practise were needed before they would try the exercises unattended. This is important. When something is billed as "recovery" or "massage," participants naturally assume it will be inherently "safe." Wrong. Many positions are precarious and/or require upper body and core strength. For example, to "roll the quads" you lie with forearms on floor and legs on the roller and move your body while holding your core stable, like a plank. Done incorrectly, the position can cause back pain and is almost impossible for someone with a bad shoulder, such as my mom. Luckily, a regular offered my mom tips throughout class, which made her day. Social interactions and community – in all situations, including fitness – are so important.

Friendly participants aside, be careful, especially if your goal is to alleviate pain. Don't be aggressive; "romance" rather than "attack" your tissues.

Fortunately, knowledgeable instructors can modify exercises to be done standing against a wall or sitting in a chair. For example, we released our upper back lying down with the ball under one shoulder. The same exercise can be done standing against the wall.

Massage and mobility work do need to be priorities, but find a teacher who explains what you are releasing and what you should be feeling. Be assertive. Ask for alternatives if you need them. If it's financially feasible, take Isa's advice and invest in one-on-one sessions to learn proper form and what is appropriate for your body.

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Kathleen Trotter is a personal trainer, Pilates equipment specialist and author of Finding Your Fit. Follow her on Facebook or Twitter @KTrotterFitness.

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