Sports massage is really popular with sports people to help them recover, loosen out, reduce pain but does it actually have any scientific benefit?

The answer is yes. While research on massage has been limited, more recently there is has been more focus on it from the scientific community. While the studies are small, sports massage has been shown to reduce pain, inflammation and accelerate recovery

Read: Massage series part 2: Foam rolling and self massage

Effect on recovery

After a training session or competition inflammation occurs within our muscles. A certain amount of inflammation is beneficial in helping tissue repair from the exercise, but too much can lead to secondary tissue damage.  Intense training or competition can lead to delayed onset muscles soreness (DOMS). It can occur 8-72 hours post intense exercise, and is characterized by loss of muscle strength, soreness, swelling, and a feeling of heaviness or “tiredness” in the body part affected.  In studies examining DOMS, sports massage has been shown to reduce odema and decrease the number of damaged muscle fibers compared to exercised non-massage controls.

When is the best time for a sports massage?

A study on animals showed that immediate massage post strenuous eccentric exercise favored quicker muscle recovery and joint function than a massage which was delayed 48 hours. However, the sports massage delayed 48 hours was still 82% better at helping muscle recover than no massage at all. It’s not always possible to get a sports massage straight after training or competition but a session on a foam roller as soon as it’s possible would help your recovery. From my experience once athletes start to feel DOMS their bodies can be too sore to massage, and waiting 48-72 hours post event can allow them have a less painful massage yet still help with recovery.

sports masasge post race

Putting intense DOMS inducing training aside I’m often asked by endurance athletes when is the best time to get a sports massage. If you want to maximize recovery then the best time is after a long run or an intense session, or on the following day which could be a low load training day or a rest day.

Light massage or deep massage?

I mentioned foam rollers earlier. One of the key comments made by those using them is that they find it hard to get enough pressure through the roller for an effective calf or hamstring massage.  A study on rabbits showed that recovery was better with a higher force (10N = 1 kg of pressure) compared to 5N (0.5kg of pressure). This is interesting as it explains why we find rolling quads on a foam roller feels more beneficial than rolling calfs on a foam roller. Many people find massage sticks more effective for self-massage of the calf than the roller because they can apply more force to their calf muscle.

sports massage

A word of caution. While deep massage is helpful, and it’s what we do in the clinic, this study is not a license to inflict lots of pain on yourself when massaging. It should be to tolerance, some areas of discomfort but nothing causing you to exclaim in pain, be unable to have a conversation, want to bite something, or heavy breathe through. Really deep sustained very painful massage can cause more damage to muscle tissue than it does good. To find out more about our sports massage click here

In summary

 

Proven benefits of sports massage: Reduces pain, reduces inflammation, increases rate of recovery, increase flexibility

Best time for a sports massage: Massage immediately after training has the best results for recovery but massage 48 hours later is still 82% more effective than no massage

Pressure: firm pressure has been shown to be more effective at reducing muscle tension and spasm than light pressure

 

Bear in mind that the studies referenced above were carried out on animals and with very small numbers. As future research is carried out we will get a more definitive picture on the affects of sports massage on the body. If you would like to read the research check out the papers below.

 

  • Best TM. Crawford SK. Massage and postexercise recovery: The Science is emerging. Br J Sports Med 2016: 51, 1386-1387 Article
  • Hass C, Butterfield T, Abshire S, Zhao X, Zhang X, Jarjoura D, Best TM. Massage timing affects postexercise muscles recovery and inflammation in a rabbit model. Med Sci Sports Exerc; 45, 1105-1112 Article
  • Haas C, Butterfield TA, Zhao Y etc al. Dose dependency of massage-like compressive loading on recovery of active muscle properties following eccentric exercise: rabbit study with clinical relevance. Br J Sports Med 2013, 47, 83-88 Article
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