Massage for Athletic Recovery

Professional cycling teams, such as those you see riding the Tour de France, bring massage therapists with them to the races. Called a soigneur (pronounced swan-YUR), the massage therapist may have many other duties, but he or she is generally there to make sure each active member of the team gets 5-7 massages per week during a multistage race.

If you’re not a professional cyclist, these almost daily massages might sound like heaven. But Tour de France riders, who pedal near the limit of human possibility nearly every day for weeks, probably need such treatment just to keep going and complete the race.

The Tradition of Massage After Sports

Massage is a traditional part of sports recovery and probably has been at least since the first Olympic games in ancient Greece. And today the tradition continues. Go to almost any big triathlon, and you will find a tent on the premises where triathletes can enjoy a free post-race massage. And believe me, there’s a long line of finishers waiting to get in. Most athletes know that a massage after intense physical activity reduces blood lactate levels and can reduce the pain of the recovery process.

But what most athletes know is not necessarily true. WebMD says that research has turned up very little scientific evidence to prove massage’s benefits to sports recovery. On the other hand, the WebMD page that says this was published more than 20 years ago. It was published about the same time as a famous report (PDF) in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, which was unable to show any physiological benefit for massage in a study of matched pairs of boxers. The researchers measured both punching force and blood lactate levels and found no appreciable difference between massaged and non-massaged athletes.

A Strange Disconnect

And yet, coaches continue to insist that massage offers benefits for recovery, and athletes continue to believe it can return them to action sooner. There’s some kind of disconnect here.

Here’s what I think is going on. In most research studies, the researchers apply the massage immediately after the intense activity. But that may not be when you need it. An article on post-event sports massage published by the American Massage Therapy Association last November looked into it. The article covered recent positive research and suggested delaying massage for a day or two after the event. “It can take 24 to 48 hours to know which muscles are short and tight,” says Diane Hood, BCMT, LMT, owner of Body Mechanix Athletics in Springfield, Missouri. “Intense activity increases blood flow as well as adrenaline, which can mask potential injuries for a day or so. In that case, immediate post-event can’t tell you where the real work needs to be done.”

Massage for Athletic Recovery

My advice is to use massage as a post-event recovery technique. It has the potential to reduce delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and to find nascent injuries. It also relaxes you and makes you feel good, and that always counts for something.

Stay out of the massage tent at the race venue. It may be free, but if you believe the American Massage Therapy Association, it may not be worth it. Schedule your massage before your big event, but schedule it for 24 to 48 hours after the event is over. When you arrive for your appointment, be sure to tell your massage therapist you are recovering from a competitive event. Offer descriptions of any unusual stresses you may have suffered during the event, and share your impressions of where your body needs work.

Massage can help you recover quicker, but you need to time it right. Book a recovery massage with us here.

Photo: “Massage im Kurhaus Bad Gleichenberg” by KURHAUS Bad Gleichenberg is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0