Updated: Apr 1, 2020
& why you don't need to be a seasoned athlete to benefit from regular sports massage
Massage has been used by health care practitioners to treat illness and injury for thousands of years, with Chinese literature dating back to 2500B.C. As the treatment of choice for numerous conditions, massage has been used to help medical complaints ranging from musculoskeletal injuries and stress to cancer and pregnancy. Today, the high demand for massage therapy by professional and amateur athletes, national and Olympic organisations, and several major athletic teams, is indicative of how profound the effects of massage therapy can be for sports-related care!
Sports massage is defined as a collection of massage techniques performed on active individuals or athletes to aid recovery, enhance performance and treat musculoskeletal injuries. Compared to other forms of massage, sports massage is more vigorous and uses a combination of techniques such as joint mobilization, stretching, cross-fibre friction and trigger point therapy.
These specific techniques offer several benefits including soothing sore muscles, increasing circulation, loosening muscle spasms, reducing local inflammation, stimulating muscle recovery and facilitating muscle relaxation. Other reported benefits of sports massage include increased flexibility and range of motion, improved grip strength and increased athletic agility.
Sports massage can also help with the psychological aspects of exercise and competition by reducing anxiety, boosting mood and increasing the perception of recovery.
The science surrounding the benefits of sports massage therapy is still in its infancy however more studies are gradually emerging…
Defined as the inability to sustain the expected muscle power or output force, muscle fatigue is a commonly experienced consequence of exercise. Sports massage can help by improving circulation to the muscles, encouraging the flow of nutrients and waste removal, to expedite the recovery process.
Lactic Acid Clearance
Lactate, or lactic acid, is produced from anaerobic respiration when intense activity is undertaken due to a reduced supply of oxygen, and may contribute to muscle fatigue and reduced performance. Massage has been shown to help with lactate clearance from muscle tissue by increasing circulation and stimulating lymphatic flow, which increases the transfer of lactate to organs such as the liver, which converts it back to glucose for use by the body.
Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is a common physiological response experienced by athletes after increasing exercise intensity such as initiating or resuming an exercise routine, or performing eccentric forms of training such as downhill running. DOMS is characterised by a heightened sensitivity to pain (ranging from mild to severe) and a reduced ability to generate force. Soreness is first experienced between 12-24 hours after exercise and peaks at about 48 hours, with complete resolution after 7-10 days.
As well as hampering athletic performance, DOMS can also lead to reduced range of motion and muscle strength, which although temporary and perfectly natural, can significantly impede performance. Sports massage has been shown to both help prevent the onset of DOMS and reduce its impact. The exact mechanisms underlying DOMS are not currently known, however a combination of lactic acid accumulation, structural damage to the muscle and connective tissue with a subsequent release of noxious chemicals, as well as localised swelling and chemicals from the inflammatory response are thought to be responsible for the pain.
Massage has been shown to reduce the concentration of noxious chemicals that sensitize nerve endings to reduce soreness, and also increase nutrient delivery to damaged tissues to accelerate healing and strength recovery.
Massage is well-known for its ability to improve mood and quality of life by several means such as reducing anxiety, depression, tension and stress, however it can also be an important component of athletic performance. By reducing pre-event anxiety, and increasing focus, motivation and tactical acuity, as well as an individual’s perceptions of pain and fatigue, massage has been shown to positively influence an athlete’s performance.
Recent research studies have demonstrated how specific techniques used during sports massages can benefit patients with sub-acute and chronic lower back pain, sports-related chronic knee pain and tendon injuries such as tennis elbow and Achilles tendon complaints.
Injury is a primary concern of any avid exerciser or athlete as it can prevent them from carrying out their beloved exercise, often with psychological ramifications too, such as lowered moods and the sense of self-worth. Injury prevention and ensuring optimal tissue healing are therefore essential for both the recreational and professional athlete.
In addition, having adequate flexibility and range of motion are beneficial for injury prevention and athletic performance. Limitations from improper body alignment and adaptive muscle shortening can cause other muscles in the body to over-compensate, causing injury.
Research into the treatment of soft tissue injuries with sports massage therapy is positive with evidence showing that massage, particularly soft tissue mobilisation techniques, facilitate soft tissue healing, increase range of motion and flexibility by targeting both muscles and connective tissues.
Trigger Point Therapy
Myofascial trigger points (MTrP) are tightly contracted regions within muscle tissue, characterised by a hyper-irritable taut band with particular pain referral patterns, and are considered a common cause of injury. They result in muscle shortening, limit both strength and function of the whole muscle, and may also be a cause of muscle cramping.
Sports massage can effectively reduce or eliminate MTrP activity, which can have profound effects for exercise-goers. Research studies have demonstrated how athletes have been able to avoid shoulder surgery and return to competition, successfully recovering from chronic shoulder impingement syndrome, by having active trigger points treated with sports massage therapy. In addition, following just 6 massage treatments, runners diagnosed with anterior compartment syndrome of the lower leg have reported significantly less pain after exercise as well as longer training times before the onset of pain.
So plenty of reasons to get yours today! :)
Brummitt J. (2008). The role of massage in sports performance and rehabilitation: current evidence and future direction. North American journal of sports physical therapy : NAJSPT, 3(1), 7–21.
Moraska, A. (2005) Sports massage: A comprehensive review. Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness; Sep 2005; 45, 3; ProQuest Nursing & Allied Health Source.
Standley, R. Miller, M. Binkley, H. (2010) Massage's Effect on Injury, Recovery, and Performance: A Review of Techniques and Treatment Parameters. Strength and Conditioning Journal: Apr 2010 V.32