Feature by Tyler Remmel
HARTLAND, Wisconsin, July 14. THE look like a sort of deranged percussion instrument – a big rubber ball skewered to a handle like you'd see on a wood file. Lake Country (Wis.) swimmer Logan Roberts calls them "bongers," but even that name doesn't tell you what their purpose is.
"The first time he took them out, someone kind of laughed [because] they didn't know what it was," Logan's mother, Traci, said. "He was embarrassed and put them away."
They are actually used as a tool for massage.
Logan has been carrying the bongers in his bag for about a year, but it's just recently that he's begun to take them out and use them. Since he has, it seems everyone on his team wants to try them out; he half-jokingly estimates that teammates ask to use the bongers at least 12 times per meet. By "use," that is, he means that they ask him to give them a massage with the bongers.
He never really asks for massages in return though. There is a sort of learning curve to using the bongers, and Logan says that most people hit too hard with them.
It's a case of "like mother, like son," with Traci and Logan. Traci is a licensed massage therapist, which is the reason that Logan has the bongers in the first place. She has had the bongers since she graduated from massage school nine years ago.
Having Logan drum on your back isn't exactly a comfortable experience, though.
"[The bongers] actually hurt," said teammate Kyle Wenger.
It almost feels like someone is lightly but repeatedly punching a tight muscle in your back. Then again, releasing muscle tension is almost always painful.
By definition, the bongers are a tool for percussive massage. As its name suggests, percussive massage is characterized by rhythmic beating on a fatigued or spastic muscle.
"It's kind of like tenderizing meat," Traci said. "It's not so much to beat the muscles into oblivion, but more to wake them up, get the circulation going, stretching them out, keeping them more or less loose."
Unlike other types of massage, percussive massage is not about relaxation.
In a spastic muscle, the blood vessels have become constricted and blood flow to that muscle is limited. The massage helps to bring oxygen to the muscle so that the waste can be carried away. It flushes out the muscle much like water does, which is why drinking water while exercising is also important.
By no means do you need to have bongers to enjoy a percussive massage; the base or side of the hand works in exactly the same way that the bongers do.
By no means is percussive massage the only beneficial on-deck massage, either. Another tool that is becoming steadily prominent is the massage stick. While the premise with a massage stick is similar to the bongers, the stick uses a stripping motion instead of a percussive motion.
Almost all of the Eau Claire YMCA (Wis.) swimmers at the Western Great Lakes Open were using their massage sticks.
"Almost after every event we whip them out," said ECY swimmer Wes Manz. "It feels pretty good."
Massage sticks can be expensive though, ranging in price from $15 to $45. While convenient, as with the bongers, a stick is not necessary if you're looking for a stripping massage. You can also use your hands, pushing down with the base of your hand and then sliding your hand along the muscle. It even works to mix it up and use a kneading motion as well.
Or, you can get creative like ECY swimmer Alex DeLakis. While most of his teammates have actual massage sticks, DeLakis decided to save his money and settle for a standard kitchen rolling pin instead.
Yes, he had a wooden rolling pin sticking out of his swim bag.
"It seemed to become a trend to have these [massage sticks] on deck," DeLakis said. "I was going through my cabinets and was like, ‘Hey, a rolling pin!'"
"I saw those…for like 35 bucks and instead of paying 35 bucks for [a stick], why not use [a rolling pin]?"
While not as prevalent on the deck of a meet, foam rollers work in the same way as the massage sticks do, except using a person's body weight to provide pressure in that stripping motion.
Generally speaking, massage is very helpful in a practice or meet environment. There are a few things to avoid though.
"I would think that any kind of deep tissue massage – anything that hurts – is probably not good," said Traci Roberts. "If you're stripping really hard or pushing really hard, then you might cause the muscle to kind of become painful and it might become counterproductive."
Lake Country coach Tom Coons has used Logan's bongers on deck to alleviate muscle spasms in his back. As it turns out, massage tools aren't just helpful for the swimmers on deck; coaches in pain can benefit as well.