Getting the Message on Massage

To most of us, massage is seen as a pure indulgence. Something you enjoy after the holidays when you redeem a gift certificate! Many serious athletes, however, believe that massage is serious treatment for muscle repair. For sure, it feels good and is relaxing, and that may be reason enough to do it, but is there any significant health benefit gained from muscle massage?

Muscle soreness post workout is caused by tiny tears in the muscle tissues along with inflammation brought about by natural lactic acid build-up. This soreness is a natural occurrence from muscle breakdown and not a symptom of anything bad. The micro tears will heal in time and the acid eventually works its way out through normal function of the circulatory system. While massage will not actually heal the damage done, it will surely make you feel less sore. At least short term. But can massage actually speed up recovery?

Rocky Marciano - Doesn't this man look relaxed?

Rocky Marciano - Doesn't this man look relaxed?

It is known that a modicum of physical activity soon after a rigorous workout will naturally increase blood flow and promote the flushing of the muscle tissues due to the quickened circulation. It’s theoretically possible that massage might likewise stimulate blood flow and promote the release of lactic acid from tissues, thereby expediting recovery, but some question the efficacy of the practice. Since the recipient of massage is presumably inactive, it would appear that, under a critical eye, massage does not in fact stimulate blood flow… or at least not directly. What massage can do, however, is relax the muscles, subsequently allowing blood to flow through more freely. So there’s that.

A simple neck/shoulder rubdown will calm the nervous
and  may help the fighter be better focused.

The greatest possible effect of massage for athletes would be the counteraction of the various damages that training and competing cause the body and ultimately improve the athlete’s performance. In fact, in terms of post massage performance, quite a few scientific studies seem to show either no effect from massage after exercise or are inconclusive at best. If those particular studies are accurate, it would reveal that while helpful for feeling better, massage is likely not contributing substantially to the healing process. 

You may argue and say “I feel great after my rubdown. I feel like I’m ready to start training again.” This would make sense. There is evidence that massage will promote the release of dopamine and serotonin into your system. These are “feel-good” compounds that will go a long way to making you feel much better, but again, the research says just because you’re feeling good from your massage doesn’t mean that you will perform any better or heal any faster.

Additionally, an aggressive deep tissue massage post competition may not be a very good idea. To be perfectly clear, we’re talking about deep tissue massage after strenuous activity, not in general terms. As previously stated, a basic rubdown massage helps by relaxing the muscles. The opposite is largely true from a painful, kneading massage. Under tension the muscles will tighten, actually constricting blood flow. The last thing you want to do is irritate sore muscles even further. Keep it simple. We recommend you tell your masseuse/masseur to keep both feet on the floor and keep their elbows to themselves!

Whether you believe in the healing power of massage or not, a pre-competition massage could actually be quite useful. While massage BEFORE physical exertion likely has minimal to zero effect on relieving or preventing post-workout soreness, it is, at the very least, a great way to get a fighter relaxed and focused. A simple neck/shoulder rubdown will calm the nervous system and  may help the fighter be better focused. This is a great technique while waiting in the locker room. Then, in the ring/cage rubbing the lower back area will flip the switch and get the fighter stimulated and ready for action.

If you have access to affordable or free massage post workout or competition, go for it. Just know why you’re doing it. Massage is not a miracle healing power that instantly gets you reset and ready for more action. It will absolutely help relax your muscles and give you some indirect healing and overall wellness benefits, just don’t expect to be suddenly 100% recovered.

Posted on July 2, 2015 .