This post first appeared on my Biofit website here.
The popularity of sports massage amongst the fitness community is no surprise - who doesn’t enjoy an hour of such ‘indulgent’ bodywork, whether it be dry or with oil, indulgent or functional?
Yes, it’s a great way to relax and that in itself can be of immense value for some who struggle to switch off, but will massage actually help your body recover faster and come back stronger? Should it be part of a proactive injury prevention / prehab strategy for active individuals asking a lot from their bodies?
Our answer is a resounding ‘yes’ but not necessarily for the physical benefits alone…
first, what exactly is ‘sports massage’?
Sports massage is a generic term for bodywork performed on active individuals to support recovery and prevent injury, it has a more functional objective than say aromatherapy massage that uses essential oils and less of the techniques listed below as key differentiators of sports massage.
Effleurage is one of the most common techniques in sports massage. The therapist uses his or her hand to stroke the length of a muscle with varying pressure and speed.
Petrissage is akin to kneading dough - the practitioner pulls the muscle up from the body, gently squeezes it, releases, and repeats.
As the name suggests, tapotement involves repeatedly tapping or gently striking the muscle.
The therapist firmly presses his or her fingertips into the skin and pushes in strokes parallel or perpendicular to the muscle fibres.
Vibration shakes the target region with a goal of relaxing the muscles and promoting circulation.
how does this type of massage work?
Experts theorize that the compressive action of massage increases blood and lymph flow. These fluids carry lactate and other exercise metabolites linked to soreness and fatigue away from the muscles and eventually out of the body.
Furthermore, faster flow can deliver nutrients to damaged muscle cells more quickly and possibly speed up natural repair.
the evidence for sports massage
High-quality studies of sports massage for recovery are surprisingly few in number, and results are conflicting. Efficacy depends on therapist skill, frequency and timing of treatment as well as the precise techniques used.
One experiment with 14 untrained male participants looked at the effect of a 30-minute sports massage (effleurage and petrissage) two hours after exercise compared to rest. Researchers assessed muscle soreness and creatine kinase, a marker for muscle damage, 8, 24, 48, 72, 96, and 120 hours later. Muscle soreness was reduced in the massage group and creatine kinase levels were lower, suggesting faster recovery.
A randomised, crossover study investigated the effect of sports massage on muscle fatigue. Thirteen male and seven female participants exercised to fatigue, followed by either a six-minute massage or rest. They again exercised to fatigue and repeated the trial a few days later with the alternative condition (rest or massage). Researchers found that performance significantly improved after massage compared to rest.
beyond physical benefits - mental wellbeing
More meaningful than a marginally faster rate of muscle cell repair is the effect massage has on mental wellbeing.
Intensive physical training invites stress and performance anxiety, taking a serious toll on a person’s mental health, and consequently, physical performance.
Regular massage can counteract these problems - research credits sports massage with improvements in mood, perception of recovery, and blood pressure, a marker for stress.
massage as a primal need
Finally, there is the primal human instinct to crave for touch and contact with another human in a non-sexual manner. This is harder to quantify but no less powerful a reason to explore your own path to a regular massage practice.
For someone training 3-5 times per week, we would recommend a monthly visit to the massage table, or every six weeks, budget dependent.