For years I’ve gotten a monthly sports massage because I found it was extremely beneficial in maintaining a happy IT band, aligned hips, and reducing my overall stress levels—which improved recovery. Could an at home massage gun for runners give me some of those benefits??
I’m always looking to spend money wisely, so I started to wonder, “Are massage guns really worth it?” Could a high-quality massage gun serve as a replacement for my monthly sports massage? Is it better than a foam roller for working the fascia?
In order to find out, I started by talking to Physical Therapist Stuart Wilson of Elevate PT. Then, I moved on to testing out a number of different models. Finally, I checked in with hundreds of runners through one of my weekly Instagram polls, because there’s nothing better than real life data to explain whether something works!
🤑Not interested in reading the whole post, then here’s a hot tip this AFFORDABLE massage gun is just as good (while still being high quality enough to last), if you decide one is necessary.
But I am going to share with you more details on what I’ve used and why some athletes might spend more for certain features.
Let’s dive in to everything you need to know about massage guns for runners to help with those tight hamstrings and sore muscles.
What is a Massage Gun?
Massage guns, referred to more technically as percussion massagers, percussive therapy or vibration therapy, are a step up from at home tools we’ve long had access to, like deep tissue massagers that use a more circular motion.
When turned on, massage guns pulse forward, creating a pounding effect on the muscle, aka percussion.
The percussive massage gun is a lightweight, portable wireless handheld device shaped a bit like a tool you’d expect to see on a construction project. Most are small enough that you can even throw them in your gym bag and take them on the go.
The “gun” name comes from being shaped like a nail gun (or power drill) and with the same idea that the massage tool itself pushes outward. Specifically they are designed to:
- Utilize depth, speed and force to hit muscles that deep tissue massage would with less pain
- Allow you to work in deeper than you can with a foam roller
- Different speed settings allow for different levels of muscle tissue work
- The repeated force provides vibration therapy
- Targeted for use on small muscle groups (think of your TFL or pecs which are hard to get with a foam roller)
It’s important to note that percussion and vibration are in fact different. Percussion is working deep in to the tissue, where something like a vibration foam roller is helping to distract nerves from pain. That allows you to work more on an area or simply to reduce pain.
What are the Benefits of a Massage Gun?
Unfortunately there aren’t yet a ton of studies to prove out the claims being made, which goes to show a lot of it could be in our heads like using compression tights for running. Don’t care, I’ll take all the headspace wins I can get.
When runners engage in high-impact activities, their muscles can experience microtears, leading to soreness and stiffness. Percussive massage therapy helps to expedite the healing process by increasing blood flow to the area, which aids in nutrient delivery and waste removal.
Including a study that showed 5 minutes with a massage gun had the same benefits as 15 minutes with a massage therapist.
Based on what doctors and physical therapists know about massage therapy, we have extrapolated the expected benefits for runners who consistently use massage guns.
- manipulation encourages tight knotted muscles to release by increasing blood flow
- reduction in muscle stiffness as a result of the deep vibration
- increased muscle relaxation could promote better sleep
- increased blood flow to that area when finished can help with muscle recovery
- could improve flexibility while the muscles are in a state of distraction
- interrupts pain signals to the brain (discovered this when writing about vibration foam rollers)
- potential increase in muscle strength (study)
One of the unique benefits of massage guns is their ability to activate the nervous system’s pain gate mechanism.
The rapid percussive pulses from the device can stimulate sensory receptors in the skin, sending signals to the brain that temporarily override pain signals from sore muscles. This can provide immediate relief and make post-run recovery more comfortable for runners.
PT, Stuart Wilson, encourages runners to begin making the massage gun part of their nightly routine. Thinking of this recovery time as priming the body for the next workout. In fact, this is one of the pieces of the Injury Prevention Program for Runners we created.
There is some evidence according to the Journal of Sports Medicine, that it could delay or slow down DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness). Which means we are able to train harder, again sooner.
Are Massage Guns Worth It?
During my last sports chiropractor visit, I asked for yet another opinion. I knew my Physical Therapist was on board, but what did my sports Chiro think about this tool.
“Do you think people should be using massage guns at home?”
Dr. Toby Spitzlberger DC had a couple of really smart things to say:
- I think it’s really exciting when people first get it and then many sort of put it to the side and stop using it (touché my friend touché on every gizmo we lust after).
- People should NOT just keep going over and over a sore area (that’s a great way to increase inflammation, just like why you don’t foam roll your IT Band).
- It’s really great for working in to a glute (or other muscle) while also using movement of the leg.
So the overall discussion lead to yes they are worth it when used consistently and when you know how to use them correctly. You could be doing more muscle damage if you’re using them incorrectly.
Don’t worry, we will dive in to that shortly.
7 Best Massage Guns For Runners
Why are massage guns so expensive? There’s a lot of technology involved, but I can’t give you a huge reason why the $600 massage gun is massively better than the one I’m using and is on sale for less than $200.
My chiropractor does have the $600 Theragun Pro and likes the massage head on it because it doesn’t cause pain if you end up over a bony area, which is easy to do around your shoulders and chest. As noted, I’m trying to find things that might be a little more wallet friendly, but you can’t go wrong with what the professions like.
*Note: I don’t recommend any of the mini massage guns, too hard to get enough force to be useful. There are plenty of great massage guns under $100 that are full size.
#1 Heat and Cold Massage Gun – ROLAZ Massage Gun ($83)
For a low priced massage gun, this has some great features. If you aren’t looking for a super deep massager, I really like that this has the hot and cold features, having used them I can say they are fabulous.
- Heat combined with the vibration can help to loosen tension
- Cold can just feel pretty darn great on a sore area
- Designed to be quite
- Contains all the massage heads and a carrying case (though really why bother with the ones that can’t do heat or cold?!)
- Metal head slides really easily and again the heat just feels good
- Percussion may not feel as deep as others, I often use this type just for vibration
#2 Best Massage Gun Under $100 – Tolco Massage Gun ($40)
It has over 42,000 reviews and is still at 4.5 stars to me that says a lot because people are hard to please!
- It also has 20 speeds making it easy to choose your power level
- Tons of massage heads for different needs
- Easy to read screen to choose your power level
Don’t let a cheap price make you think it can’t do the job. It can!
In fact, even the top tier options have been dropping in price. So if you’ve been waiting to find the best massage gun, now is the best time to snag it.
#3 Mid-Level Smart Massage Gun Theragun Prime – ($219)
There are a variety of Theragun options, this one is middle of the road. Not as pricey as the professional model, but not moving down to the less powerful Theragun Mini.
- Most Theraguns claim to have a deeper muscle tissue treatment than you’ll find with lower powered machines
- Prime vs Pro: It will have the same intensity, but less stall power. Which means you could more easily apply too much pressure. It has a slightly shorter battery life at 2 hours.
- Prime is much quieter than the other versions
- Comes in a pouch carrying case, rather than a hard sided case
- Wireless charging
- Smartapp bluetooth integration will give you actual routines to use!
#4 Professional Gade Massage Gun – Theragun Pro ($599)
If you really want to level up and you need that super deep muscle penetrating pound, then the Theragun Pro you find at most PT’s office is where you want to look.
Just remember that more force doesn’t always mean a better result.
This is going to be the heaviest massage gun at 2.8lbs, with the most stall force of up to 60lbs (especially the budget ones are more like 20-30lbs.
Same features like the OLED screen and interchangable heads as the Prime.
#5 Bluetooth Guided Usage – Hyperice Hyper Volt 2 – ($299)
My Ragnar team was obsessed with this particular model, passing it back and forth between vans when we traded off legs.
It’s one of the more popular models on the market. It does have fewer speed options than others, but reports having a longer battery life. It’s also listed as one of the quietest massage guns.
- Hypersmart app will give you personalized plans to get the most of out it
- TSA friendly
- Very quiet, but only 3 speed levels
For the price I would probably choose something else. BUT Hypervolt is a really high quality brand and this massage gun is going to last you a very long time.
#6 Good Force and Angle Erkin Athletics B37 – ($299)
If you really like that deep force of the Theragun, here is a cheaper option that is really well liked. A bonus is the slight angle of the massager can make it easier to reach around and get your back muscles (a must for me).
- Super long battery life
- Deep percussion – 5 speeds to choose from
- Pretty…does that matter, I don’t know, but I like the emerald color!
- Ultra quiet technology
#7 Mini Massage Gun – Sportneer Mini 3 ($49)
If you need a mini for traveling, this is a decent option among those out there, to actually still provide some power. It really does pack a punch, at about half the power of a Theragun, which is going to be on par with a lot of full size masssgers.
They label it as pocket sized, but I’m not sure whose pocket we’re talking about. It’s about as tall as an IPhone, but of course still chunky
- Great LCD screen
- 5 Speeds
- Good battery life
*fun note: do know that if you travel with a mini massage gun, you’ll likely get stopped at TSA…and they will be thinking it’s a different vibrating device.
What to look for in a Massage Gun?
Some of the key features we looked at when testing runner massage guns. I had a few I really wanted to recommend, but after testing they just had so little power I couldn’t truly say they’d done anything.
- Amplitude – how deep it goes (probably the most important factor based on what you need the massager to do)
- Speeds – how much you can control the intensity
- Nice to have multiple tool heads to hit muscles differently
- Easy to hold
- Good battery life (I’m definitely one who forgets to charge things)
- A warranty because it better last awhile if you’re using it in place of a monthly massage
Who Should Avoid Massage Guns?
But let’s not forget that for some people a massage gun may not be the best choice for recovery. It’s always important with any method from cryotherapy to ice baths to accupressure to know your body.
It’s essential to prioritize safety and consult with a medical professional before using a massage gun, especially if you fall into any of the following categories:
- Recent Injuries: If you have recently suffered an acute injury such as a muscle strain, tear, or sprain, it’s crucial to allow your body sufficient time to heal before using a massage gun. Applying percussive pressure to an injured area could exacerbate the damage and delay the healing process.
- Open Wounds or Bruises: Avoid using a massage gun on areas with open wounds, cuts, or significant bruises. The intense vibrations and pressure could hinder the natural healing process and potentially cause further harm.
- Inflammation or Infection: Individuals with conditions characterized by inflammation, such as rheumatoid arthritis or acute infections, should avoid using massage guns in areas affected by inflammation. The additional stimulation could lead to increased discomfort or potential complications.
- Certain Medical Conditions: Individuals with specific medical conditions, such as deep vein thrombosis (DVT), blood clotting disorders, osteoporosis, or certain skin conditions, should consult a medical professional before using a massage gun. These conditions may require specialized guidance to ensure safe usage.
- Chronic Pain Conditions: Individuals with chronic pain conditions such as fibromyalgia, neuropathy, or chronic fatigue syndrome should consult a healthcare provider before using a massage gun. The intense vibrations might aggravate these conditions, and a healthcare professional can offer guidance on the best approach.
- Medications: If you are taking medications that affect blood clotting (blood thinners), pain perception, or muscle function, consult your healthcare provider before using a massage gun. The interaction between the massage gun’s effects and your medications should be evaluated.
- Children: Children’s bodies are still developing, and the impact of percussive therapy on their growing muscles and bones is not well understood. It’s recommended to avoid using massage guns on children unless specifically advised by a pediatrician.
- Unfamiliarity or Discomfort: If you are new to using massage guns or experience discomfort while using one, it’s essential to start with low intensity and short durations. Discontinue use if you experience pain, numbness, or any adverse reactions.
How To Use Massage Gun?
While I love having my husband run the massage gun over my back, generally you’ll be using it on yourself and that’s ideal to ensure you aren’t using too much pressure.
This isn’t a deeper is better scenario. Not the sports massage, where you’re gripping the table as they work through that calf knot kind of thing.
Step 1, you need to relax.
If you’re tense because you know an area is tender, you’re making it harder for the tool to work and it’s likely going to hurt more. Start with a very light pressure and ease in to the area.
- Start on the lowest speed and increase as needed.
- You’re using a light touch and allowing the vibration to help release the knot.
- You’ll only be holding it on a given area for a few seconds, as you continue to slowly move it around.
- Think of finding a tight spot and moving it around for 15 seconds, moving over that whole area of your body for no more than 2 minutes.
- An entire full body session might only take 5-10 minutes. This is not like getting an hour massage; that’s overkill on your muscles.
- Do NOT overuse it.
- DO NOT use it on injured areas, strains, sprains, etc.
- Do not use it on bony areas.
- You could use it a few times throughout the day if desired, with at least a couple hours between.
When To Use a Massage Gun?
You can get benefits of using the massage gun for recovery late in the day or for priming muscles prior to a workout.
Muscle Activation: 30 Seconds
Pre-workout, you could utilize it on areas like your glutes and quads to hep wake up the muscles with a short session.
A few studies have shown that using it on the forearms improved grip strength when done before lifting. Another showed more power in the quads.
So it’s certainly worth testing in your dynamic warm up. I like it to hit on my tight TFL prior to a workout.
Muscle Re-Activation: 15 Seconds
Some have also recommended using it during a workout when you’re beginning to fatigue, possibly because the vibration creates the muscle distraction to lessen pain signals. This is more common in strength training sessions where people are also looking for those gains noted above.
Relaxation: 2 Minutes
Once you’ve fully cooled down from a workout or are getting ready for bed, you can use the massage gun on different areas for up to 2 minutes. Again moving the gun around consistently, it’s said to promote relaxation and will now be working in to those tight areas to release fascia.
How to Use Massage Gun Heads?
I admit this was one of the first things I was curious about…why so many and what do they do? Not wanting to injure myself by simply testing, I started to research first!
This is the most used head, as it can really go anywhere on the body and the softer foam will be less intense on places like your inner thighs (which often get skipped with foam rolling) or tender calf muscles.
This may be made of something a little firmer than the foam ball depending on the model, but is also suitable for use on most of the body and may simply provide a little more intense muscle work than the larger head.
This one might be more ideal for most of our larger sore muscles because it spreads out the impact. I like both the flat head and the ball more MOST of my massage time.
This smaller, more intense tool is designed for specific trigger points and is often used on the soles of the feet. It’s sometimes mentioned for use around joints, but I don’t think for the most part we want to be in any way sending an impact in to the bone.
This split head attachment allows you to target areas such as the spine or neck without hitting the bone. But is also often used on the Achilles, or in an area where you want a dual hit to help release the muscles.
As I learned with the Hydragun, these are actually INCREDIBLE. Especially because I’ve been hitting my glutes and low back hard since the ultramarathon and always find my shirt getting snagged up…not with this.
Do You Need a Massage Gun?
If asked, this wouldn’t be the first tool that I’d spend money on, though I do enjoy mine.
Probably because I’m stingy with where I spend money and I don’t want to throw yours around either. Am I enjoying having one? For sure. But they’ve been out for years and I survived without one, too.
Once you’ve said yes, I’m doing those, if you are wanting to treat yourself or take things to the next level, then go ahead and get a massage gun.
This isn’t a cure all or a magic bullet, but if it excites you to train or helps you feel like recovery is better then GO FOR IT.
I got in to running because it was cheap. I could run in my cotton t-shirt, my mesh shorts and the shoes I had laying around…I quickly learned at least that last piece was a very bad choice.
But truly, I never could have imagined what I’d spend on a GPS watch and never even pondered something like massage gun.
Yet now, I realize that the right tools are key to keeping me running injury free.
Which means keeping me sane.
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