When you think of a massage, you probably imagine a luxury spa, nature sounds and a stark white room glowing only with candlelight—or something like that. While that sounds undoubtedly nice, a sports massage isn’t usually part of an awesome vacation package. It’s an effective tool in a lot of athletes’ recovery arsenals.
Whereas the massage you’d typically get at a spa is more soothing than strong, a sports massage is likely of the “deep tissue” variety, according to Thomas Best, MD, PhD, a primary care sports medicine physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, who has also researched the effects of sports massage on recovery. For those who participate in “racing and intense training sessions,” the techniques are intended to relax muscles and help you bounce back quickly.
What else should you know about massages? Here, Best explains why you might want to consider hitting the table after a hard workout.
Why Consider Massage?
Best says studies report conflicting evidence about whether massage enhances recovery after a workout. “The main challenge is that researchers have used different protocols, different types of massage and different time periods post-exercise,” he explains. “All of these variables likely have an effect, which makes studies hard to compare.”
Some studies are showing big benefits, though. “Animal studies and human studies suggest that tissue inflammation and damage are decreased after massage,” Best says. “Animal studies show that pre- to post-massage tissue stiffness is decreased.” And from a purely subjective perspective, Best says that many runners report feeling much better when they stack their massage after a race or long run.
How Long Does It Take?
According to Best, the current body of clinical evidence suggests just five to 10 minutes of massage is enough to relax those muscles. The researcher has also conducted work on exercised animals to try and determine the exact right amount of time for optimal recovery. “Our animal studies support this idea that shorter is better, where we show that 15 minutes is more effective than 30 minutes,” he says.
Are There Any Drawbacks?
According to Best, the drawbacks of massage are minimal. “However, if we don’t know how much force we’re applying to the tissues, theoretically, there must be a limit beyond which tissue damage results,” he explains. So make sure you’re hiring a therapist trained specifically in sports massage, who knows how to correctly manipulate muscles, soft tissues and joints in a way that’s healing, not harmful.
And although you’ll probably feel amazing when you get off that massage table, Best says studies show that often “these effects are not sustained day-to-day.” So, it’s not exactly a one-and-done affair. To keep feeling good, you’ll have to keep getting massages—or at least self-massage with an at-home tool like a foam roller in between visits.
Who Should Get a Massage?
Any super-active individual aiming for better, faster recovery can definitely try sports massage. However, there is a reason elite runners are adopting the practice as a vital part of their training regimens. “Some research suggests massage is more effective on performance and recovery for runners than for other athletes,” says Best. So, marathoners who engage in endurance training may benefit more than baseball players who have more of a specialized skillset.
Wait. Do you hear that, fitness fans? The sound of relaxed sighs from other guys and gals, just like you, climbing off the table after a hard workout. Go ahead. Give massage a try.
This article is not intended to substitute for informed medical advice. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.