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Master Your Recovery: The Benefits Of Sports Massage

Does massage help with recovery? How important is it? We answer all your massage-related questions.
Dan Ward

When it comes to fitness and exercise, rest and recovery are crucial. 

Just like most aspects in life, a long-term approach to fitness requires balance. Yin and yang. Working out, then restoring. 

In fact, rest and recovery should be fully built into your exercise plan. Your muscles and body need a chance to heal, recharge, adapt and come back in stronger. 

Different people require different levels of rest. It depends on your activity levels, fitness levels, how long you’ve been training for, plus a few other factors.

A popular way to help the body recover is through massage. From professional sports teams to everyday runners, you see massage therapy forming part of the plan. 

But is massage worth it? What are the true benefits for exercise? Can massage maximise gains and performance or is it more about preventing injuries and prepping the body ready for the next session? Let’s dig into the science behind sports massage and its potential effectiveness.

What is a sports massage?

A sports massage targets the soft tissue of your skeletal muscle. The idea behind sports massage is to target specific muscle areas to help athletes with recovery and prevent injuries.

Sports massages are usually given after exercise, but they can be given before or even during activity.

At our football club at Gateshead FC, massages tend to happen after we’ve played. It always feels like a fantastic tension reliever, setting me up nicely for the next session.  

Sports massage vs deep tissue

Deep tissue and sports massages are similar in that they help to relieve muscle tension. But they differ slightly in their purpose and application.

As the name suggests, a deep tissue massage wants to get down into those deeper layers of muscle and connective tissue. Slow, low and firm. This type of pressure helps break up knots and break down tension. Yes, it’s one of those - feels nice but hurts too! 

Compare this to a sports massage, which mainly targets the surface-level skeletal muscles, loosening them up and boosting blood flow.  

What are the benefits of a sports massage?

From amateur to elite-level sport, massage is common. But what are the actual benefits of a sports massage? 

The perks of a sports massage boil down to recovery. For me, a good sports massage after exercise is a no-brainer. But there’s science behind the practice too. 

A meta-analysis study of previous studies found that sports massages can improve flexibility and prevent or reduce delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). The results were small, but significant. No one likes DOMS two days after training, so this information is important to know. 

But, if you’re looking to directly improve athletic performance, a sports massage won’t help. At least, there’s no scientific evidence to suggest this yet. 

Does massage help or hinder recovery?

The evidence suggests that a sports massage can aid recovery, but it’s got to be done right. 

The optimum massage window for reducing DOMS is between two to 24 hours after exercise, rather than immediately after exercise.  

Another study found that sports massage can reduce blood lactate, which is linked to muscle soreness, as well as post-exercise muscle tension. However, reducing blood lactate can also be achieved just as effectively through active recovery, like walking, cycling, yoga and active stretching.     

Interestingly, one of the major benefits of massage could be in the mind.

For athletes, having a massage can produce a number of mental benefits. It can boost your mood, make you less anxious and speed up recovery through a placebo effect.

Many studies have suggested that the psychological benefits outweigh the physiological. This comes down to belief. A massage can make you think you’re recovering faster, even if the physiological data doesn’t tell the story. The end result is the same: you recover faster and your perceived soreness is reduced. A quirk of nature, but it does work. 

When’s the best time to get a massage?

Generally speaking, the best time to get a massage is after exercise. Why is that?

Well, let’s think about what a sports massage does. 

A massage doesn’t improve physical performance when it comes to endurance, strength, jumping or sprinting. What it can do is improve recovery. For this reason, it’s better to get a massage after training to aid the recovery process. I can definitely vouch for this. 

But there’s a window to this too. 

A massage may help enhance recovery anywhere between 2 and 48 hours after exercise. Once your body starts to feel DOMS, it’s too late. At this point, it’s often too painful to give a proper sports massage to the muscles in question. I can feel the tenderness now!

Is it good to get a massage before a marathon?

The same logic applies as above. Think of a massage as part of your recovery. 

If you’re training for a marathon, schedule a massage after a long run. Either a few hours after a run or the morning after is ideal. 

All things considered, a pre-event massage will not benefit you. Yes, it may loosen up your muscles and make them relaxed, but this can also be detrimental to performance. You want primed, ready-to-be-stimulated muscles. Not one's ready for a rest. 

A much better pre-event approach is to go through an active warm-up.  

Should you massage a pulled muscle?

Evidence suggests a massage can help soft tissue injuries, such as a pulled muscle. Timing is key here. 

Too soon and you might risk causing further tissue damage. This timing will all depend on how sore and severe the injury is. 

When the time is a right, a sports massage can help a pulled muscle by:  

  • Relieving pain
  • Increasing blood flow (which bring oxygen and nutrients)
  • Reducing inflammation 
  • Psychological benefits (including reducing anxiety about the injury)

If you’re unsure whether your massage is right for you or not, always speak to a professional.

A word on massage guns

A human massage applies mechanical pressure. A massage gun attempts to recreate this by applying a type of low vibration percussion therapy. 

The big difference is that you apply the pressure yourself, also known as self‐myofascial release.

The aim aligns with a sports massage: release muscular tension and tightness in a specific area.

Although few scientific studies exist on massage guns, there’s some evidence to suggest they can relieve perceived pain and muscle soreness. They’re certainly popular with runners to loosen up tight areas, especially the calves, hips and quads that can take a pounding.

If you can’t afford a regular sports massage, a bit of self massage gun therapy might be a good alternative.

So, is a sports massage worth it or not?

Will a massage improve sports performance? No. 

But will a massage aid your recovery? Yes, there’s evidence to suggest that a sports massage will reduce DOMS and increase flexibility. 

The benefit for exercise? A massage will help to speed up muscle recovery time. You’ll be ready to train or perform again sooner. You’ll be ready to go another round 👊

Active recovery techniques and massage guns can also help to reduce muscle soreness, but there’s nothing like the physical expertise of a sports massage. It also offers additional psychological benefits and can reduce your anxiety about potential injuries.

As we always say, “you can’t over train you can only under recover”.

So, for a well-rounded recovery strategy, it’s a good idea to factor in some form of sports massage or self-massage technique. 

Looking to book a sports massage? Head over to Urban Massage and use the code ANOTHERROUND23 to get 10% off your first booking. 

Be quick, this exclusive offer is valid until 30th June 2023.

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