Sports Massages: What are they for and you and how often should you have them?
I have worked in professional sport for +6yrs, including Olympic Sports, Premier League & Academy Football. During my time in pro sport one of the things that I found interesting was the differing perception on sports massage that athletes had. Some would have a massage every day, I’ve known athletes who have requested 2-3 massages a day! It was almost like they were hooked on it and couldn’t train or perform without them. On the flip side athletes in the same team would actually run away if you even mentioned the word ‘massage’ around them. They felt that it was not needed and actually negatively affected the way they felt and performed.
I now see a lot of people privately through Vitalize Physiotherapy in Ashby De La Zouch, many of them runners and sportspeople. During a Physiotherapy or Sports Massage session I regularly get asked ‘how often should I get a sports massage’ or ‘this feels good but how is it benefitting me’. I thought I’d write this blog to try and answer these questions and also offer my opinion on sports massage.
To answer the question ‘How often should I get a Sports Massage’ you have to delve a little deeper and ask yourself the following question:
Why do you want a massage?
Before deciding on how often to have one you need to be clear on what you’re trying to achieve. You could always have this conversation with you therapist during your first session to help.
In general people have massage to help with:
· Stress Relief & Relaxation
· General Well-being and Feeling Good
· Injury Prevention
· Long-term maintence
Please note if you are actually in pain then initially a sports massage is not be the best option. Sports massages are not designed to assess and diagnose a problem. If you are struggling with pain or injury it would be best to have a physiotherapy assessment to determine the cause of the problem and determine if sports massage is the best way of managing it.
For me, a sports massage should supplement a good training programme or lifestyle. It should be deemed as the cherry on top of the cake, the additional extra that you do if all other basis are covered. If your sports massage is a pivotal part of your training or well-being programme then something is not quite right.
A runner has been having ITB and knee pain for years. She’s managed the problem by having a sports massage every 2-3 weeks for the past year and it has become part of her routine. However, the reason the pain keeps happening is because of a strength deficit around the hip and/or pelvis. If she did the relevant strengthening exercises her pain would resolve and her running technique would likely improve as well. She’d then have the option to have a sports massage for general maintence because it makes her feel good but not because she feels she can’t run without it.
Another example would be the classic office worker who suffers with neck pain and headaches from sloughing at a computer for long periods of time. A massage will likely feel lovely and help for a couple of days. However, the key to fixing the problem long-term would be improving postural strength, maximising the work station ergonomics (i.e. a standing desk) and prompting more movement over the course of the day. It’s a case of prevention is better than cure.
How does Sports Massage work?
Sports massage is thought to increase the blood flow surrounding the soft tissues. The deep sweeping motions also open up pores in the tissue membrane that allows for nutrients to pass into and out of the muscles. This combination of increased blood flow and more movement of nutrients allows for old stale red blood cells, white blood cells, inflammation and other chemicals to be flushed away and replaced, which is thought to help with recovery.
Sports massage can also be beneficial in reducing muscle or fascial tightness, also known as ‘muscle knots’ or ‘trigger points’. Often when you press a tight muscle you can feel a firm area that is often tender and sensitive. It might feel a pebble within the muscle. This would be a classic example of a ‘muscle knot’. Fear not, there is not actually a knot in your muscle but rather a collection of muscle fibres that are tightly contracted. This tightly packed group of muscle fibres reduces its own blood supply, effectively squeezing it away. Without its blood supply the muscle fibres become starved of oxygen, which they need to survive. The lack of oxygen results in pain and increased sensitivity to the area. Often these ‘muscle knots’ are so tight that stretching the muscle doesn’t help but a deep sports massage can manipulate the tissues, helping to restore flexibility, blood flow and reduce the sensitivity to the area.
Does It Work?
Deep massage has been around for thousands of years. There are Chinese writings that dating back to 2500 BC describing the use of this modality for a variety of purposes. In my opinion there must be something to it for it to have stayed so popular for so long.
Over the years there has been extensive academic research performed looking at the benefits of sports massage. The results are extremely mixed! To broadly summarise there is some evidence that shows massage may be beneficial for recovery following strenuous activity. However, the research has generally failed to demonstrate positive effects on sports performance and injury prevention. This would indicate that having a sports massage prior to physical activity will not help you beat that personal best but it might be worth having one to assist with the recovery process.
I think the important thing to remember is if a sports massage is done properly by a professional then it should never cause any physical harm. With this in mind, although it is important to consider the research it’s even more important to consider how if effects the individual person. Ultimately, if sports massage makes you feel better, more relaxed or more flexible then it has worked for you.
So, How Often Should I Have A Sports Massage?
This seems to be the million-dollar question but unfortunately, it’s a bit like asking ‘how long is a piece of string?’
How often you have a sports massage will depend on how it makes you feel and the benefits you personally get from it. As I said at the start, I know of many people who cannot stand sports massage and would much rather stretch, foam roll or do nothing. On the flip side I’ve known many people who love it so much they become over reliant on it.
Some factors that may depend on how often you have a massage include:
· Your general health:
If you are a fairly healthy person, with no injuries or chronic conditions, you can pretty much get a massage as often as you want. If you’ve got an injury or chronic condition and have been advised to have massage you may come in for a block of regular treatment until the issue is resolved.
· The reason for getting a massage:
If you are training hard for a specific event you may find you get a build up of tightness that benefits from a sports massage on a monthly or weekly basis. Or you may get tight shoulders from sitting all day at a computer and just want some treatment occasionally to reduce the tension.
· How you felt after your last session
Despite popular belief a sports massage should not leave you feeling battered and bruised. It shouldn’t feel light and tickly though. It takes a certain amount of pressure to achieve the positive effects mentioned above but excessive pressure will cause bruising and pain which will have the opposite effect. Some people feel sore for a day or so after a decent sports massage, so don’t feel tender at all. It is very individual, which is why it’s important to give feedback to your therapist about how it makes you feel.
· How long the effects last
This is very individual. For some the effects last just a few days, for others more than a month. If you find no benefit from sports massage then it would be worth reviewing if it is the right treatment option for you.
· Your time & budget
Your time and finances are important factors to consider when deciding how many treatments you’d like.
My personal view is that sports massage has a place and plays an important role, especially if you are training heavily or have a long-term condition. It can be particularly useful for recovery and feeling good but does not offer much for improving performance or injury prevention.
If you do feel tight/stiff I would advise that you allocate some time into your programme to focus on self-muscle release such as stretching, foam rolling and trigger ball release work. If you have a good programme then sports massage should be considered an ‘additional extra’. Unfortunately, many people rely on sports massage to ‘paper-over’ problems and although it might work initially most of the time the underlying issue causing the tightness comes through to cause a bigger issue at some point.
As a physiotherapist I often us Sports Massage as a treatment option if someone has an injury or is in pain but I normally combine it with over treatment techniques and exercises. If you are in pain or have an injury it is important to get a clear diagnosis from a medical professional to determine if sports massage is the best course of action to manage your problem.
Thank you for reading. Please feel free to share this, read my other posts or check out my facebook page and website. You can make a booking with Vitalize Physiotherapy (for assessment, treatment or sports massage) through our website:
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