Sports massage is primarily utilized by athletes, but some practitioners offer it to non-athletes too. It can be applied pre-event to help prevent injury and encourage healing, post-event for recovery, and during training to optimize performance. This approach to massage can be useful in preparing athletes for their warm-ups, increasing circulation and flexibility to enhance performance, and promoting better injury rehabilitation.
During a sports massage, focus is generally applied to the areas of the body experiencing the most exertion from physical activity. In many cases, ongoing sports massage is used as a “maintenance” program for athletes.
What Is Sports Massage?
According to MASSAGE Magazine, sports massage originated in the early 1800s when Swedish fencer and gymnast Pehr Henrik Ling began applying Swedish massage with exercise. He originally called his version of sports massage kinesiotherapy. The technique grew in popularity in Europe throughout the 1900s, but gained prominence in the U.S. during the 1972 Olympic Games, in which Finnish athlete Lasse Virén credited his wins to deep friction massage applied prior to his events. Trainers and athletes took notice of the value of massage therapy for athletic warm-up and recovery, and the techniques of modern sports massage were developed and formalized in publications such as Jack Meagher’s book Sportsmassage.
Today, many professional sports teams and athletes seek out and hire skilled sports massage therapists. Additionally, sports massage therapist may be seen working at triathlons, marathons, bike races, or other endurance races. They are able to work on athletes before the event to warm up muscles and increase circulation, and they may be called upon to assist in immediate injury recovery during the event.
What Is a Sports Massage Like?
Blood pressure, heart rate, soft tissue injuries, and dysfunctional muscles are all components of physical health that can affect an athlete’s performance. Anxiety, in addition to several other psychological aspects, can also affect performance. The goal of sports massage is to address these concerns before, during, and after an athletic performance.
Sports massage as part of an athlete’s warm-up may incorporate aspects of Swedish massage (in the form of similar stroking, kneading, rubbing, and striking techniques) to increase blood flow and circulation. This warm-up massage may also be applied to provide relaxation and loosen the muscles before more intense work begins. Increased circulation may also aid an athlete’s brain activity and alertness. Post-event, sports massage can be used to promote the body’s recovery from injury or overexertion.
During a Sports Massage:
- If the massage is performed pre-event, the client typically disrobes, with either a sheet or large towel always covering the client’s private areas. If a sports massage is applied during an event, the massage therapist may have to work with a client who is fully clothed, as cameras and spectators may be nearby.
- Hot or cold hydrotherapy is often used to relax the muscles and reduce inflammation before a sports massage or after. Ice may also be applied to further soothe painful areas.
- Oils and balms may be applied after hydrotherapy and before a massage, although sometimes a massage therapist may opt to use hydrotherapy after the massage.
- Deep hand, finger, arm, or elbow pressure is applied typically to the areas that have been exerted the most. A more intense form of Thai massage may be used to stretch, rotate, and flex muscles and connective tissues.
- When friction is applied, the practitioner will likely use both hands and move vigorously back and forth. This is useful for stimulating blood flow and relaxing the muscles.
Although the client may still feel pain and soreness after a post-event session, many athletes will notice signs of recovery immediately. Energy and vitality may be restored, along with greater flexibility.
The Health Benefits of Sports Massage
Sports massage is typically an ongoing process for athletes. With an athlete’s daily demands on every muscle, tendon, tissue, and organ, using sports massage as a good maintenance program that can help keep the mind and body working to its optimum potential. Sports massage can assist an athlete or non-athlete in achieving their physical and mental goals. Some of the major health benefits of sports massage include:
- Relaxation for the body and mind
- The release of pain and discomfort
- Increased circulation
- Increased range of motion
- Increased strength
- Injury prevention and faster recovery from injuries
- Better mental focus
Sports Massage for Self-Care
Self-care is important for athletes whether they play in the NFL or simply schedule a weekend round of racquetball at the gym. A healthy self-care routine can make it easier to focus on nutrition, achieve personal goals, and optimize performance during training. If you’re an athlete, especially one who has sustained injuries in the past, consider finding a massage therapist skilled in sports massage to help you meet your goals and compete at your best.
- McGillicuddy, M. (2003, May). Three key principles of sports massage. Massage Today. Retrieved from http://www.massagetoday.com/mpacms/mt/article.php?id=10712
- Nall, R. (2014, February 2). Deep tissue massage vs. sports massage. Livestrong. Retrieved from http://www.livestrong.com/article/546491-deep-tissue-massage-vs-sports-massage/
- Sports massage Q and A. (n.d.) Retrieved from https://www.amtamassage.org/professional_development/Sports-Massage-Q-A.html
- Waslaski, J. (2014, July 1). A brief history of sports massage. Massage Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.massagemag.com/a-brief-history-of-sports-massage-25854/