(Test Ride)

Did A Studio For Stretching Finally Teach Me Self-Respect?

It’s a must for runners.

by Melissa Dahl

In Test Ride, TZR staff reviews the popular fitness workouts, equipment, and trends making waves in the wellness industry to see what all the buzz is about. Ahead, BDG’s Executive Director of Health & Wellness Melissa Dahl chronicles a recent visit to popular stretch therapy studio, Stretch*d.

This fall, I ran my fourth marathon in Philadelphia. I trained hard (a first) and didn’t miss a single workout (another first), which meant I was running upwards of 50 miles a week, six days a week, with speedwork and strength training thrown in, too. I was desperate to qualify for Boston. I did not qualify for Boston.

After Philly, and after furiously Googling things like, “after marathon when can train for another marathon” and “marathon recovery fast how,” I came across Stretch*d, a studio in New York City offering “professional stretching services.” I’m not saying I would have successfully qualified for Boston if I’d heard about Stretch*d during my training, but I’m also not … not saying that, you know?

“Self-care” is now very much the kind of wellness cliche that makes me cringe, but a term I can tolerate is “mobility training”: stretching, in other words. Reduction of pain and prevention of injury, in other words. Respecting yourself and the body that houses you, in other words.

And I’m sorry, but you have to do it. You just have to. You can choose fancy high-tech options like massage guns or compression boots, or you can choose reliable low-tech standbys like foam rollers and massage therapy. You don’t have to call it self-care, but you do have to take care of yourself, especially if you’re going to be working hard. By “you” here I very much mean “me,” because even though I’ve been running for 15 years, I have historically devoted almost zero time to recovery. Recovery is for real runners; therefore, it is not for me. I never feel like I’m working hard enough to earn the right to foam roll. For me, a lack of self-care feels highly correlated with a lack of self-respect.

But Boston was a big goal, and it’s hard to be ambitious if you don’t respect yourself — which means you also have to take care of yourself. Of course, the secret is that if you get better at caring for yourself, your work will improve, too. But maybe it’s best to mostly forget that part, because then the care will once again turn into self-punishing hard work, and you’re back where you started.

So, yeah, I took my tired body and mind to Stretch*d.

The Services

The big thing Stretch*d touts is its one-on-one stretching services. It’s not exactly a massage, and it’s not exactly physical therapy, but also it’s sort of both? Someone pushes and pulls and bends your body in ways you couldn’t quite manage on your own. "While massages are helpful, they provide more temporary relief," Vanessa Chu, one of the founders of Stretch*d, told TZR previously. "Stretching, when done properly, is much more of a corrective exercise. There is a lengthening occurring in the muscle during a stretch that doesn't occur during a massage, which leads to more permanent changes in the body. In the method of Stretch work we do, we are also moving the joints, which don't get as much attention in massage."

Chu explains that stretch sessions are generally more active than most massages. “Although your stretch practitioner is doing most of the work, it is still movement based and can therefore be both a warm up and a cool down in of itself,” she explains. “Active stretching helps prep muscles for a workout. We don't recommend massages before a workout as this can relax the muscle too much and lead to injury.”

Before they get started, there’s a brief consultation, where you describe your lifestyle (for example, how often you exercise versus how often you sit on your butt) and tell them about anything in particular that’s bothering you. After I told my stretcher about my running and work schedules (running 50 miles a week while working a 50-hour-a-week desk job), he decided to focus solely on my lower body, with a particular focus on my hips.

My Experience

When it gets going, I have to say: It is awkward. I know how to behave in the context of massage or physical therapy, but this exists in some fuzzy, in between space. You lie on a table, and your stretcher then straps you to that table at your waist. It makes sense — they’re going to be moving your body around a lot, and it’s easier to facilitate deeper stretches if you’re strapped in. But still: It is awkward. A half hour or so in, though, I’d acquiesced. It just felt so good.

For a nominal fee, you can also tack on a few blissful minutes with a Hypervolt massage gun and/or a pair of Normatec compression boots, both of which aid in recovery by removing lactic acid buildup, which contributes to muscle soreness. I did both and wished I could take both home with me.

The assisted stretching and the high-tech recovery tools were great, but I need to draw special attention now to the Body Roll*r, which is kind of like a supercharged foam rolling machine. This is how the Stretch*d website describes the Body Roll*r:

Body Roll*r offers both a lymphatic massage and body shaping (slimming). Using infrared heated rollers moving at an optimal speed, the heat and pressure offer an acupressure massage that relieves muscle tension and stimulates lymphatic drainage.

And this is how I would describe the Body Roll*r: It feels so good. Comparing the machine to a sex toy and the feeling to an orgasm feels hacky and gross ... and yet, the best comparison I can think of is a vibrator! Using a sex toy on your own does not provide the same experience as a sexual encounter with another person, and yet, it is its own thing. Using the Body Roll*r on my own did not provide the same experience as a massage by a licensed professional, and yet, it was its own thing. Privacy and ecstasy can coexist.

Typically, one of the studio staffers said, they’d provide an instructor for the Body Roll*r to talk you through a session, which can last up to 50 minutes. But due to COVID restrictions, a video takes the place of a real-life instructor. And so, following the lead of my virtual guide, I began by timidly putting my feet on the Body Roll*r. I was tense at first, but the heat and the pressure felt so good, I relaxed in spite of myself. Shortly thereafter I was sitting on the machine in order to better target my hamstrings, and finally straight up straddling the thing to really get after the insides of my thighs.

I didn’t know how much everything had been aching until the feeling was suddenly gone. Pre-Body Roll*r, I felt weary, creaky, ancient; post-Body Roll*r, I felt rejuvenated, renewed, reborn. Again, I must resort to innuendo: You know how tension builds and builds and builds and then there’s this outsized sense of relief and pleasure that comes from a really good … um … sneeze? Yeah, it’s like that.

After I’d been stretched, Hypervolted, Normatec’d, and Body Roll*d, I was floating. I was high. I was hooked, I was an evangelist, I was sure everyone I knew would feel better and be better if only they, too, could be stretched, Hypervolted, Normatec’d, and Body Roll*d. I drifted languidly toward the front desk and bought a gift certificate for my ultra-marathoner boyfriend, who shares my distaste for self-care but would probably do it more often if it were framed as hard work. I signed up for another marathon and vowed things would be different this time.

My Takeaways

Overall, my experience at Stretch*d can be summed up with the following thoughts:

  • First and foremost, I will 100% try the Body Roll*r again. I’d probably choose the lower-body focused 30-minute session, which is $30 a pop or $120 for a five-pack.
  • I own a Theragun, which is another brand of massage gun, so I won’t need to revisit the Hypervolt, but I could see myself paying $20 for a 20-minute session with the Normatec boots. I’ve never wanted to invest in a pair of those — plus, I’m not sure where I’d keep them in my tiny Brooklyn apartment — but it’s nice to know I can pay them a visit whenever I want to.
  • I’d do the assisted stretch session again, too, but I’d probably save that for recovery after a goal race. (I hate to admit it, but the awkwardness is a big barrier for me!)
  • I’d recommend this to any amateur endurance athlete who is bad at self-care, which is to say, I would recommend this to almost any amateur endurance athlete.