Sports massage is reported to have many beneficial effects in athletes. Sports massage can be used pre-performance, post-performance, during training, or for rehabilitation. From elite athletes to recreational exercisers, it is a popular choice. Learn more about what it is used for and which benefits are supported by research.
What Is Sports Massage?
Sports massage is a systematic manipulation of the soft tissues of the body that focuses on muscles relevant to a particular sport. Runner Paavo Nurmi, known as the “Flying Finn,” was one of the early users of sports massage. Nurmi is said to have used sports massage during the 1924 Olympics in Paris where he won five gold medals. Jack Meagher is thought to be the father of sports massage in the United States.
Many different movements and techniques are used in sports massage. Examples of these techniques include; Swedish style massage, effleurage (stroking), petrissage (kneading), compression, friction, tapotement (rhythmic striking), vibration, gliding, stretching, percussion, and trigger points. These movements and techniques are used to try to help the athlete’s body achieve maximum performance and physical conditioning with a decreased chance of injury or pain and a quicker recovery.
Many benefits from sports massage have been reported based on experience and observation. Some are beneficial to the mind (psychological) and some to the body (physiological).
Some of the reported benefits of sports massage include:
- Increased joint range of motion (ROM)
- Increased flexibility
- Increased sense of well-being
- Decreased muscle tension
- Decreased neurological excitability (nerves more relaxed)
- Decreased muscle spasms
- Better sleep
Purported benefits that are not supported by research include:
- Increased blood flow
- Increased elimination of exercise waste products (lactic acid)
- Decreased chance of injury
- Decreased recovery time between workouts
Possible side effects of sports massage are tenderness or stiffness for 1 to 2 days after the sports massage. A skin reaction due to the massage oils is also possible. But for the most part, sports massage is safe.
What the Research Says
Research studies regarding perceived fatigue and recovery showed that subjects felt they were less fatigued and felt like they recovered faster after sports massage. Decreased anxiety, improved mood, better sleep, and enhanced feelings of well-being were also noted. Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is reduced by sports massage, according to a wide variety of studies.
Now for some benefits that are not supported by research. The ability of sports massage to help the muscles get rid of lactic acid is not supported in research studies. Many researchers feel this is linked to the fact that sports massage does not increase blood flow to muscles. For example, a 2010 study found that blood flow was actually mechanically impeded by massage and that was a possible reason that lactic acid removal was impaired. A quicker recovery after sports massage is not yet supported by the research. Studies do support that active recovery (low-intensity exercise after work-out) is the best method of decreasing the amount of lactic acid that builds up after exercise and speeds recovery.
So what does all of this mean? It seems that the positive mind (psychological) benefits of sports massage are indeed supported by research studies. Study findings also support that sports massage does not negatively affect performance, but the positive body (physiological) benefits on performance are not quite as clear. More research is needed on the positive body effects and also on the mind/body interaction after sports massage.
Finding a Sports Massage Therapist
Look for a credentialed massage therapist to provide you with sports massage. You can look for therapists in your area via the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork (NCBTMB)’s Find A Nationally Certified Practitioner database or the American Massage Therapy Association’s (AMTA) Find a Massage Therapist database.
The AMTA recommends asking the following questions:
- What are your certifications, and are you a member of the American Massage Therapy Association?
- Are you licensed or registered as a massage therapist in this state? Almost all states regulate massage therapists, requiring credentials to practice.
- Which types of massage are you trained to perform?
- Can you address my health and fitness concerns?
Sports massage is highly valued by many athletes, even though some of its purported benefits are not supported by research. If your goal is relief from sore and tense muscles after a workout, as well as general relaxation, it may be valuable for you.
Zahra Thunzira is a Jakarta-based nutritionist and gym instructor. She’s also an adventure travel, fitness, and health writer for several blogs and websites. She earned her Master degree in Public Health from University of Indonesia.