Sports massage is a popular treatment method used by runners and many other athletes, both before and after an event. Those lucky enough to have access to a massage therapist may even have a regular treatment as part of their general maintenance.

While many of us do this, do we really know why we are doing it, what the benefits are and how to ensure we get the most out of our treatment?

Why have a sports massage?

Sports massage has many benefits. Good, quality research is a little lacking in this area, but the massive increase in demand for sports massage therapists over the last decade speaks for itself.

The main benefits of sports massage are:

  • Increase in muscle flexibility: Massage stretches out the muscle fibers and helps reorganize them.
  • Breakdown of scar tissue and adhesions: These can reduce muscle flexibility and function
  • Increased circulation: Aids healing by bringing fresh oxygen and nutrients and improves recovery by flushing out the metabolic byproducts and waste.
  • Elimination of trigger points (knots): Those hard, painful little lumps that can refer pain all over the place.
  • Prevention of blood pooling and "waste product" drainage: The physical effect of sweeping and essentially pushing waste products, swelling, etc., away from your legs into the lymph glands and blood flow for removal.
  • Relaxation: While often uncomfortable, a deep massage can still be relaxing — even if it's just because it's the only time you've stopped all week. More scientifically, massage has been shown to reduce cortisol levels (a stress hormone).
  • Mental preparation: Especially just before an event, a massage can really help you focus.

Maintenance massage

Many runners and athletes will have a regular "maintenance" massage throughout their training. The aim of this is to keep the muscles (and other soft tissues) in the best condition they can and to address any niggles as soon as they appear.

Lots of different techniques that all fall under the remit of "sports massage" can be used, including trigger-point therapy, frictions, muscle energy techniques and myofascial release.

The frequency of such treatment depends largely on the availability of a therapist and the purse strings of the athlete (or funding available). At the top level, athletes may have a sports massage once or even twice a week, especially if experiencing problems requiring attention. Most amateur athletes may have fortnightly or monthly appointments, which often become more frequent closer to an event.

Most amateur runners are now also having what I like to call a pre-pre-event massage. This occurs once all of the hard training is completed, as a way of loosening the muscles and preparing for the event. This tends to occur 3-5 days prior to the event.

Pre-event massage

A pre-event massage is performed literally just before an event (not the one you may have 3-5 days before). The aim of this massage is to increase circulation and to warm and stretch the muscle fibers. It is a brisk massage that doesn't use as much pressure as is usually applied. This ensures that the muscles and tendons are not sore when starting the race.

It is also a great time to focus on the task ahead, your race plan and goals. Pre-event massages are often available at larger events, usually for a small fee or donation to charity.

Post-event massage

A post-event massage occurs just after you have completed the race. Again, these are available at many larger events. The aim of this type of massage is to help the muscles recover as quickly as possible. Again the techniques are not as deep as may have been used in your maintenance massages, but more long, sweeping, rhythmical strokes to help flush away metabolites and prevent blood pooling in the legs.

A post-event massage may also be used 2-5 days after the race to help with recovery. It is advisable to wait until the muscles are no longer sore to the touch before having this type of massage. If the muscles are still extremely fatigued, tight and sore, you won't reap the benefits as much as if they have had a little time to recover from the muscle damage sustained during long events.

Post-event massage after a few days can be deeper than that used immediately after the event and target any problem areas more specifically.

How to get the most out of your massage

If you're paying for this service, you obviously want to get the most out of it and ensure your body responds positively to the treatment. There are several ways you can help with this:

  • Trial and error: Try several different massage therapists in your area until you find the best one for you. You should be comfortable in his/her presence and feel that the treatments are effective. It might take a few attempts to decide what/who works for you.
  • Plan your appointments: Book your appointments in advance to work alongside your training and competition diary. Make sure you don't have a hard session scheduled right after a treatment and that you leave enough time before an event.
  • Communicate: Make sure you tell your therapist of any problems you have been having prior to the treatment starting. Also let them know during the treatment if you feel any particularly tender areas.
  • Rest for the next 24 hours: It is advisable not to undertake any heavy training for the next day after a massage. Let the muscles rest and recover. A heavy session straight after will just undo some of the effects of the massage. It's best to then do a light session after 36-48 hours and save the hard work out for later in the week.
  • Stretch after: The muscles are nice and warm and flexible after a deep-tissue massage, so make the most of it. Use this time immediately after a massage to perform some thorough stretching, especially of any particularly tight areas.
  • Drink plenty: After a deep massage, it is a good idea to drink plenty of water to help flush out toxins released during the treatment. This can be quite dehydrating, so most therapists will provide a glass or bottle of water at the end of your massage.

If used properly, sports massage can be a great tool for any athlete to enhance their performance and recovery. Following these simple guidelines will ensure you get the most from your treatments.