At the Vermont City Marathon in Burlington a few weeks ago, the finish area was filled with the usual sights and sounds: music, post-race fluid and food tents, medical aid personnel and, of course, a few thousand runners staggering around looking about as happy and comfortable as Bill Clinton at a Promise Keepers meeting.
There was something else though which is appearing at more and more running events: a massage tent. At Vermont, there were at least a dozen massage therapists giving marathoners a 10-15 minute post-race sports massage. The line of runners waiting for their massage indicates this is a form of therapy gaining popularity and recognition in the running community, and not just amongst elite athletes.
Just what is sports massage, what does it purport to do for the athlete and, most important, does it really work?
According to Stephanie Podolak, a Physical Therapist Assistant and recent graduate of the Finger Lakes School of Massage in Ithaca, sports massage differs from the more traditional forms of massage in both intent and technique. “Most people” she says, “look to massage to help decrease stress and muscle tension and to increase relaxation and body awareness. Sports massage is used to achieve goals specific to the athlete, such as aiding in recovery from strenuous exercise, helping to avoid injury and even to enhance performance.”
Jim Macie, an athletic trainer and massage therapist, concurs and describes the differences in technique which makes sports massage a specialized therapy. “While sports massage uses many of the same basic strokes as relaxation massage, the application of these strokes is usually more aggressive when working on the athlete.” With an after-event massage, the goal is to “detoxify” the muscles by stimulating increased blood flow and lymphatic system function, improve cell respiration and decrease lactic acid accumulation in the muscle tissue. He says if this “post-event flush” is performed soon after a race, muscle cramps and spasms can be relieved and recovery time can be decreased. (How soon after an event helps determine the appropriate force applied by the therapist. Just after a marathon, for example, the pressure used will probably be fairly light.)
Both Jim and Stephanie, while promoting sports massage generally as a preventative therapy to keep muscle and connective tissues at maximum flexibility, do not advocate this type of massage just prior to competition unless the athlete has been working for a long time with a massage therapist who knows the athlete’s body well. “Your first sports massage should never be before an event,” she says.
If you receive a sports massage from a professionally-trained massage therapist, you’ll believe it helps, but does it really have a physiological effect, or are the benefits derived from psychological factors? While there are indications the latter plays a significant role, recent studies are showing clear changes in blood chemistry and muscle physiology following massage. In 1994, for example, researchers at East Carolina University looked at the effects of athletic massage on delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS — the reason you have to walk down stairs backwards two days after a marathon) by measuring both the subjects’ reported levels of soreness and more objective biochemical changes in the blood which are known to accompany DOMS. The results between massaged and control groups showed a significant decrease in perceived soreness and an increase in neutrophil (a type of white blood cell involved in the inflammatory response after muscle cell injury) blood levels in the massage group, indicating reduced inflammation in their muscles. Less inflammation means less soreness, so the subjective and objective findings correlate well here.
Sports massage as a regular routine in your training program may or may not lower your times, but in the hands of a professional massage therapist, you’re not likely to suffer any adverse results. If you have the time and money, it may be worth a try.