The reviewers looked only at studies that met their criteria for sports massage, which they defined as “manual manipulation of muscles and soft tissue by a qualified professional, with the purpose of improving performance in or recovery from sport.” (A previous research review on the topic included non-manual therapies such as vibration and water-jet massage). In all, they pooled the results of 29 studies, comprising more than 1,000 subjects.
The researchers did conclude that sports massage increases short-term flexibility and significantly reduces subjective ratings of muscle pain and soreness. But, they note, the flexibility findings were in comparison to doing nothing, rather than stretching, light exercise, and other common practices done with the hope of increasing flexibility.
But Here’s the Rub
The researchers’ conclusions might seem to undercut much of the rationale for sports massage. But Julia Kirtland, owner of Core 3 Sports Massage in Portland, Maine, and the 1997 U.S. marathon champion, mostly agrees with the review’s findings.
“Massage helps athletes maintain overall muscle health by identifying areas of tension and addressing them before an injury occurs,” she said. “Massage increases tissue flexibility and muscle relaxation, improves range of motion, relieves trigger points, as well as reduces adhesions. Combined, these benefits of massage help the athlete remain active, optimize his or her training, and maximize performance.”
It’s important to understand the limitations of the studies that have been done on sport massage and performance. They have been extremely short-term, and usually comparing a hard effort when subjects have and haven’t had a sports massage. For example, in one of the few studies on sports massage and endurance, 18 male cyclists did two 5K time trials 20 minutes apart. Between the two hard rides, they either cycled at an easy effort, lied down, or received a massage. Performances on the second time trial were best by those who cycled easily before it.
That’s not how most people approach sport massage.
Many elite runners get regular bodywork in the same way that you might frequently check your car’s oil level and tire pressure—
a preventative approach that to seeks to keep the machinery running as smoothly as possible. The review’s finding that sports massage reduces feelings of muscle soreness should mean that treatments will leave you more able and eager to train at the level you want.
This more nuanced view of sport massage puts it in the category of other health-supporting practices, such as getting enough sleep and eating a varied, nutrient-dense diet. These practices allow your body to better withstand the demands of training and increase your chances of remaining injury-free, so that you can achieve the consistency that leads to true improvements in performance. “I think it’s through keeping muscles healthy that massage helps performance,” Kirtland said.
Similarly, sports massage is best viewed not as a one-time cure for long-term problems.
“Some issues—recent, but not severe—can be can be helped by just one, or a few, massages,” Kirtland said. “However, the issues that are chronic, often the type that runners deal with, tend to take time to ‘fix.’ Athletes have to be invested in maintaining muscle health long-term (through self-care as well as massage), not just waiting until they get hurt and can’t participate in their sport.”
If you use sports massage as one way to maintain your muscles’ health, then it makes sense to time them for when your muscles might most benefit. It’s better to get a massage later in the day rather than immediately after you’ve done a long run or hard workout. Another good time is the day after your longest and hardest runs, to potentially speed recovery for your next ambitious outing.
Most sports massage therapists had to stop working in the initial phase of the coronavirus pandemic. According to information compiled by the American Massage Therapy Association, massage is again allowed in all but eight states and the District of Columbia; some states have allowed massage therapy to resume in some areas while continuing to disallow it in areas with higher case loads.