Roman and Greek athletes combined massage techniques and forms of exercise in training for athletic competition in ancient times. In the more recent 1960s, athletes of the former communist bloc and U.S.S.R. began travelling, for the first time, with massage therapists. What did those Romans, Greeks and communists know that you need to know? Sports massage is a type of massage specifically for people who participate in athletic activity. Sports massage has four goals: preventing injuries, keeping your body in the best condition possible, preparing for peak performance, and ensuring recovery from injuries and strain.
What is Sports Massage?
There may be more types of massage than you realize—Swedish, hot stone, aromatherapy, and deep tissue. Besides those, other types of massage are trigger point, reflexology, Shiatsu, Thai, prenatal, couple’s, chair, sports, and more. Each type of massage uses different techniques targeted at other muscle groups with different objectives.
Sports massage is not just appropriate for elite or competitive athletes but can benefit people who simply want to be as physically active as possible. For everyone on that spectrum, sports massage offers increased flexibility, improved performance, reduced pain, eased anxiety, and decreased muscle tension. Your sports massage therapist will, while addressing your entire body as required, systematically manipulate the soft tissues and muscles of your body involved in and affected by your sport or activity.
Sports Massage for Elite Athletes
Elite athletes who receive sports massage often participate in massage immediately before an event, sometimes between stages or heats of an event, and usually immediately after an event—in addition to during training and during post-competition periods. An elite athlete may prioritize getting massages by a certified sports massage therapist. In Canada, sports massage therapists participate in the National Sports Massage Certification program.
Sports Massage for Recreationally Active People
People who enjoy recreational physical activities will undoubtedly benefit from massages with a certified sports massage therapist but may also reap the benefits of sports massage—relief from aches, cramps, pain, and muscle tension—at the hands of a massage therapist who may not be certified in that specialization. Even if you don’t participate in competitive events, massage therapists will help you live a physically active lifestyle with the lowest possible risk of injury, and with the quickest and most complete recovery from injuries that do occur.
What Are the Benefits of Sports Massage?
Sports massage offers a wide variety of benefits for athletes and active people of all ages and activity levels. While everyone is different, research into sports massage has identified the following benefits:
- Increased range of motion and flexibility
- An improved emotional and psychological feeling of well-being
- Reduced muscle tension and spasms
- Improved blood flow and better sleep
- According to a 2016 study conducted by Oxford University, sports massage may provide pain relief
- Research at McMaster University reported in 2012 found that well-timed massage can relieve pain in damaged muscles by transmitting anti-inflammatory signals, increase muscle growth, and even stimulate the growth of mitochondria—the parts of our cells that are responsible for producing energy out of our nutrients
- The same study at McMaster found that sports massage contributed to reduced recovery time between workouts and competitions
An August 2013 study called “Effects of Swedish massage therapy on blood pressure, heart rate, and inflammatory markers in hypertensive women” was published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. It did not discuss sports massage specifically but found the following benefits of massage generally: decreased heart rate and blood pressure, reduced recovery time and improved rehabilitation, reduced anxiety and improved mood, improved circulation of oxygen and blood, pain relief, improved healing and elasticity, and stabilized stress hormones.
The manipulation of your soft tissues and muscles often produces tenderness and even muscle stiffness for a day or two after your session. That tenderness and stiffness is normal and will resolve quickly. Your massage therapist will tell you what to expect. Having said that, if you’re concerned about your post-massage sensations or about how long they’re lasting, contact your massage therapist right away for advice.
Understanding the Limits of Sports Massage
You should also know what benefits sports massage does not deliver. When assessing a potential sports massage therapist, it’s essential to ensure the person you’re consulting is not over-promising and that you’re not developing unrealistic expectations.
Sports massage doesn’t break down the lactic acid that builds up in your muscles and causes muscle soreness. Time and cessation of exertion, or active recovery techniques, breaks down that lactic acid, not massage.
A study entitled “Effect of sports massage on performance and recovery: a systematic review and meta-analysis” was published in BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine. This study found that sports massage does not: improve sprint speeds, jump distances, or strength measurements. Also, sports massage does not reduce the decline in force and velocity that can only be recovered by rest.
These results are essential to understand because sports massage is not a substitute for effort and training. Coupled with effort and training, though, the increased flexibility, improved relaxation, improved range of motion, and relief at specific trigger points achieved with sports massage can contribute to better athletic and recreational experiences.
What to Expect During a Sports Massage
While every athlete, recreational or elite, is different and has different goals, and every massage therapist has different styles and specializations, there are a few elements of sports massages that are common across the board. Here are a few things you can expect at your next sports massage.
First, you can expect your sports massage therapist to ask you a lot of questions. Those questions might include: What’s been bothering you? What kind of exercise do you perform, or in what sports do you participate? Have you suffered any injuries? Your complete and honest answers will help your massage therapist to deliver all the potential benefits to you.
Second, sports massage may be different from stress-relief massages you’ve experienced. Where a stress-relief massage may tend to your entire body, sports massage is more likely to focus on particular problem spots or muscle groups involved in your exercise or sport of choice, and the trigger points associated with those muscle groups.
Third, you may be surprised at the wide variety of massage techniques you’ll experience in a single sports massage session depending on what the massage therapist decides may benefit you. You may also encounter Swedish-style techniques, stroking or effleurage, kneading or petrissage. Other types of massage you may encounter are stretching, gliding, vibration, rhythmic striking or tapotement, compression, or friction. If at any time, any technique makes you uncomfortable in any way, be sure to let your massage therapist know right away.
Finally, as mentioned above, it’s normal after a sports massage session when so many trigger points are stimulated, and tight muscle areas are stretched that you may feel sore or that your muscles may feel a little tender the next day.
Whether you’re an elite athlete or a person who enjoys physical recreation as part of a healthy and active lifestyle, sports massage offers benefits ranging from improved emotional well-being to expedited recovery. To find out how you can benefit from sports massage, get in touch to schedule an assessment to get answers to any questions you have.