Massage has a number of benefits including maintaining the body generally in better condition, preventing injuries and loss of mobility, restoring mobility to injured muscle tissue. It may also extend the overall life of your sporting career and boost performance. It works through physical, physiological as well as psychological processes.
- Pumping blood and lymphatic fluids around the body. The stroking movements in massage suck fluid through blood vessels and lymph vessels. By increasing pressure in front of the stroke, a vacuum is created behind. This is especially important in tight or damaged muscle tissues, as a tight muscle will squeeze blood out like a sponge, depriving the tissues of vital nutrients and energy to repair.
- Increasing tissue permeability. Deep massage causes the pores in tissue membranes to open, enabling fluids and nutrients to pass through. This helps remove waste products such as lactic acid and encourage the muscles to take up oxygen and nutrients, which aid recovery.
- Stretching effects. Massage can stretch tissues that could not be stretched by the usual methods. The bundles of muscle fibres (fasciculi) are stretched sideways as well as longitudinally. Massage can also stretch the sheath or fascia that surrounds the muscle, so releasing any tension or pressure build up within.
- Breaking down scar tissue. Scar tissue is the result of previous injuries or trauma and can affect muscle, tendons and ligaments. This can lead to inflexible tissues that are prone to injury and pain. Massage may not remove it but should make it more supple and flexible allowing normal function.
- Improving tissue elasticity. Training can make tissues hard and inelastic. This is one reason why hard training may not result in improvements. Massage helps reverse this by stretching the tissues and circulating blood and nutrients.
- Opening microcirculation. Massage does increase blood flow to tissues, but so does exercise - probably more! What massage also does do though is open or dilate the blood vessels and by stretching them. This enables nutrients to pass through more easily.
- Reducing of pain. Tension and waste products in muscles can often cause pain. Massage helps reduce this in many ways including releasing endorphins, the body's natural painkillers.
- Relaxing both muscles and the entire body. Muscles relax through heat generated, circulation and stretching. Mechanoreceptors in the muscle sense, touch, pressure, tissue length and warmth. When they are stimulated there is a reflex relaxation of the muscles.
- Anxiety reduction - through the effects mentioned above relaxation is induced and so reduces anxiety levels.
- Invigorating - if massage is done with brisk movements such as what would be done before an event then this can produces an invigorating feeling.
That is the why and how of sports massage but when should it be applied?
Sports massage can be useful for aiding recovery after an event such as a marathon - immediately after, or a day or two after. Best results are obtained when the massage is performed regularly i.e. weekly. Be careful though not to have a deep massage the day before a big race. This might make you tired and lethargic or if the massage was firm you may have soreness that could hinder performance.