By: Terence Vanderheiden, DPM
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. Athletes of all levels may benefit from sports massage. If you are looking for a way to improve your athletic performance, then sports massage may be for you. Learn more about the possible performance-enhancing effects of sports massage.
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. Here, 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 of the benefits are to the mind (psychological) and some are to the body (physiological). 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. Some of the reported benefits include:
- Increased blood flow
- Increased joint range of motion (ROM)
- Increased flexibility
- Increased elimination of exercise waste products (lactic acid)
- Increased sense of well-being
- Decreased muscle tension
- Decreased neurological excitability (nerves more relaxed)
- Decreased chance of injury
- Decreased recovery time between workouts
- Decreased muscle spasms
What the Research Says
Now that you know the reported benefits of sports massage, let's find out if the research studies support those benefits. 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, and well-being were also noted. Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) decreased by about 30% in one research study. Other studies support the finding that DOMS does decrease after sports massage.
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 increased blood flow to muscles after sports massage cannot be supported either.
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.