Sports Massage: Myth or Magic?

First published on MarathonMTB.com

Since my first 100km event as a wobbly teenager (giraffe, rollerskates, you get the picture) I’ve been amazed at the recuperating benefits of sports massage. For me it was clear, I did a long ride, I could barely walk afterwards, I got a massage, I felt relatively human again, since then I’ve never turned back!

Like most folks who do a fair few mixed events in a year it always seems odd that its only the so called ‘fun’ mass participation events that fully buy in to offering a post ride massage. Usually it is a combination of sports science students or volunteers from various fields of sports physiology that are on hand to reduce the damage riders have just inflicted on themselves at these events. Through a combination of bad positions, no preparation, poor hydration or simply the cumulative effects of large amount of cycling these angels of recovery are usually in very high demand after the big 100 miler or sportive.

But why do I see so few at the higher level events? Is it a case of regular racers don’t have time to spare after a road race on the weekend to use up the last of their family credits by getting a post race rub down or is it that racers just don’t believe in the benefits? Maybe it is simply a case of riders doing it in their spare time irregularly when they felt like treating themselves. It just feels like it is treated as such an after thought from the same group of people who are generally very happy to try ANYTHING to get that marginal gain, why is that? Not convinced? For me the benefits are obvious but is it all in my head? I had a bunch of questions and it was with this in mind I approached TeeCee (aka my missus) from the performance clinic Summit Wellbeing in Mortlake with a few questions.

Always trust a sports massuese with a cycling tan! Tracy Corbett (Massage therapist) and Ricky Davis (Chiropractor) from Summit Wellbing http://www.summitwellbeing.co.uk

CGN: Tracy, is sports massage for recovery, ‘hocus pocus’ witchcraft or legitimate training and racing benefit?

Overall the aim of regular sports massage is to maximise performance and minimise potential for injury at the next event. Take a Tour rider for example, who will have daily superficial massage at the end of each stage to aid recovery ready for the next day’s stage race. The specific objectives of having such a massage will be purely to aid recovery, help tissue repair, revitalise fatigued muscles as well as aid neuromuscular recovery. But generally sports massage can definitely aid a broad range of training and competition factors.

CGN: What is the difference between a massage for recovery and a massage for preparation, is there a difference?

A massage for recovery will take place if not on the day, then next day after the event has taken place. A preparation massage however would normally take place 3 days before the athletes main event. The reason for this is the therapist would generally opt to use a deep tissue massage technique which requires the therapist to go deep into the muscle fibres breaking down lactic acid toxins, releasing tension and stiffness from muscles, tendons, ligaments, joints and fascia. This in turn will create an effective increase in blood flow to the muscles.

CGN: Is sports massage dangerous, I’ve heard of people hating sports massage saying it’s too painful?

If you have a blood clot, then a deep tissue sports massage is definitely not advisable but with no history of past blood clots, then there is no reason not to have one. As a therapist I will always communicate with my client with regards to their pain threshold. This will vary in many athletes as some will request a superficial and others will require me to go deeper.

CGN: Many racers have a packed diary, how long should a massage take and with what kind of regularity should I make the time?

A massage will take 1 hour and to keep the body working at optimal level, I would recommend once a week if the athlete is racing. As a cyclist, I understand how much time training and racing can take. I therefore advise clients to pop into the clinic after rides or work as part of their weekly training program.

CGN: What can someone expect from a sports massage?

Firstly I would ask the client to fill out a client information form, which will determine if there are any injuries or medical issues I should be aware of. This in turn will give me a good comprehensive understanding of the clients needs and more effective massage treatment. Depending on the client, I would carry out a superficial massage (near the surface, energising) or a deep tissue (which is the manipulation of the deeper layers of muscle fibres and soft tissue).

CGN: Whats the difference between seeing a chiropractor or a physio to seeing a sports masseuse?

Chiropractors and Physiotherapist’s work with the joints in the skeleton, making adjustments to treat problems. They may use some soft tissue techniques in their treatment, similar to massage. It takes 5 years to qualify as a Chiropractor and 3 years as a Physiotherapist. A qualified Sports Masseuse will need an ITEC diploma and also be a member of the regulating professional body for Sports Massage. The 3 professions are complimentary. If you already have a specific pain or injury which is stopping you from participating in activities, your first appointment should be with a Physio or Chiro. If you wish to prevent injury, enhance performance, develop flexibility, or have more general aches and pains, see our sports massage team.

CGN: Why do they always insist on drinking so much water?

This is a good question, as many massage therapists believe that toxin’s are flushed by massage and drinking water. However when you look into the research there is very little evidence to support this and it is all a little vague. That said, as an athlete myself I know by drinking fluids after a massage and before an event, will ensure my muscles are fully hydrated and ready to race.

CGN: Do compression tights actually work?

The evidence appears anecdotal, but the perceived recovery benefits can’t be denied. Adam Trewin (B.Sc (Hons.) of Exercise Science) explains in simple terms how this actually works: The circulatory system is comprised of both arterial and venous blood flow. Arterial blood is pumped from the heart/lungs, is oxygenated and flows at a high pressure (> ~120 mmHg – i.e. your systolic blood pressure). Correct fitting compression garments will not significantly impede this arterial blood flow. Venous blood, however, (deoxygenated, having done it’s metabolic job passing through the capilleries and offloading oxygen and nutrients to the active muscle) flows at a much lower pressure (< ~20mmHg). These veins have special venous ‘one-way’ valves built in which allow blood to go back toward the heart, but not the other way. Musclular contractions squeeze the blood back to the heart which is the main mechanism for venous return. Compression garments utilise this same mechanism.

There you have it folks, get training but get recovering so you can train harder in your next session!