A few weeks before my 100-miler this summer - gosh, that seems like a long time ago now, doesn't it? - I received an e-mail from John Kulik, a Reno-based trail runner who had invented a contraption that he claimed was the Rolls Royce of leg massagers. He was making the devices in his garage and started a business by selling them one by one, and claimed that they gave him the best calf massage he'd ever received.
To me, the key word in that last sentence was "calf", because ever since becoming a barefoot and minimalist runner a few years ago, my calves tend to get disproportionately painful compared to the rest of my leg muscles after a hard workout or racing an ultra. I've tried a few different hand-held massagers, but it's often hard to isolate deep trigger points in the calf with a modified rolling pin or a happy face wooden ball. So when John offered to make a massager for me, I took him up on the offer.
The Calf Car!
His invention is called the Calf Car , and I found myself using it quite frequently in the weeks before and after the 100-miler. Although my training volume has tapered since then, I still use it intermittently to work on stubborn knots that aren't responsive to stretching. It's not quite the "best massage ever", as I'll explain later, but it's pretty effective for applying deep pressure in a focused spot within the large muscle bellies of the calves.
It's also a great machine for anyone who's into self-inflicted pain - more on that in a second.
Foot rest cushion; rubberized ball on 4-wheel cart
If you've ever sat on top of a tennis ball or lacrosse ball to work a knot out of your hamstring, the operational concept of the Calf Car is simple to understand. It uses a free-rolling rubber ball (think of the texture of a racquetball) on top of a 4-wheeled acrylic cart that rolls forward and back along a grooved track. You rest your heel on the pad at the bottom of the board and move the ball up and down along your calf using a chopped-off golf club handle.
Modified golf club handle; removable "knot buster" knob
The lower you rest your calf, the greater the pressure when the ball rolls underneath it. Consequently, you can really do some deep penetration if your calf is low enough. Giving myself a deep massage is one of those situations where the process hurts like crazy, and the soreness afterward is actually increased - but once it wears off, you can tell that the knots have broken up a bit. In other words, it’s a lot like getting a real massage.
You also get this cartoon of a cow driving car #69 ... I'm not sure I want to know what that means
Using the Calf Car, it’s possible to apply pressure to the medial and lateral areas of the calf by maneuvering your body around a bit. For example, if you want to target the inner calf area, you roll your foot slightly inward on the heel rest. Sometimes it’s a little tricky to position your body just right while still leaving one hand free to pull the cart back and forth, but with a little bit of practice I became pretty efficient at all the positions that targeted my muscles the best.
Although the Calf Car is primarily designed to massage the calves, there are a couple of other applications that come in handy as well. The "knot buster" knob on the front of the board (see picture up higher), which is removable when using the car for its primary purpose, can be used as a pressure point for the hamstrings by sitting on top of it. I found this process to be fairly awkward and not nearly as effective as the calf massage. The wheeled cart also detaches completely from the track, and can be pressed and rolled onto the top of your shin to help massage tendonitis associated with shin splints.
My main concern when using the Calf Car was how the rubber ball would feel rolling against my skin – in particular, whether it would pull on my leg hair or cause any other irritation. I was pleased to find that the rolling didn’t tweak my hair at all (although it’s worth noting that I keep it clipped fairly short), but I did develop a hot spot in one area after putting heavy pressure for a long period of time while trying to roll out one particular problem knot. John has told me that he’s considering using other materials for the ball, and this would probably be an area worth exploring further.
Aside from that one issue, I was really pleased with how the Calf Car is able to penetrate and loosen up almost all of the knots in my calves. As for whether it’s the best massage ever, here’s what I think: there will never, ever be a tool or machine as effective as the human hand, and there will never be a massage device that feels better than having someone knead through those problem spots one by one. Yes, that makes my standard for any contraption like this impossibly high - but short of that, I can still recognize when something is useful and practical for everyday use, and I’d definitely recommend the Calf Car if you suffer from chronically sore or knotted calf muscles like I do.