Updated: Dec 14, 2021
The health and fitness benefits of sports massage are not as well understood as they should be. People who participate in sport and exercise typically focus on their respective disciplines. Emphasis is placed on taking part and maintaining training consistency.
However, while this is an important aspect of developing performance, it is arguably no more important than recovery. In fact, arguably this aspect of sport and exercise should be of even greater concern.
Without adequate recovery the body becomes more susceptible to aches, pains, and injuries. Even minor injuries can dramatically impair our ability to fully take part in physical activity. Serious injuries can prevent participation for extensive periods of time.
Related: Know the signs and symptoms of injury
Such outcomes are best avoided. And, while sport- and exercise-related injuries cannot be completely prevented (if only!), susceptibility can be significantly reduced. One such way of remaining in top shape is by regularly treating your body to a sports massage.
For the next five minutes or so I’m going to tell you about some of the benefits of sports massage. Hopefully, from this article you will be encouraged to engage in regular sports massage and start treating your body to the recovery it deserves.
But firstly . . .
What’s sport massage?
In a nutshell, sports massage is a non-intrusive hands-on therapy that consists of releasing tension and breaking down trigger points in muscles and the surrounding fascia. The sports masseur, often referred to simply as a ‘Sports Therapist’, applies physical pressure to muscles, using a variety of techniques such as kneading, stroking, frictioning or stripping, to name a few, to muscles and fascia helping alleviate aches, pains, knots and tears, that naturally occur with exercise.
Therapists often employ a range of additional modalities to facilitate facial compliancy. Such techniques include massage guns, dry needling, cupping, and shockwave therapy. This is all done to enable clients to remain physically active.
Sports massage benefits and effects
Below I have outlined in detail four sports massage benefits. But for those who seek only a short overview, the following list should scratch your itch.
The benefits associated with regular sports massage include:
Increased range of motion (ROM) around a joint
Promote a sense of well-being
Reduced muscle tension
Decreased neurological excitability (nerves more relaxed)
Decreased muscle spasms
Reduced muscle aches and pains
4 benefits of sports massage
#1: Sports massage aids exercise recovery
During any type of physical activity, be it running for a ball or power pressing a percentage of our bodyweight, muscle fibres are damaged in their droves. Few realise this but exercise is destructive: thousands of microscopic tears are caused in the muscles.
This is what leads to the DOMS – delayed onset of muscle soreness – and accounts for why we sometimes ache after strenuous exercise.
Though this sounds like a negative to be avoided it’s actually a crucial part of the physical development process. When muscle fibres are damaged the body repairs them. In addition to repairing torn fibres, new ones are built. This is the process of hypertrophy.
‘Hypertrophy refers to the increase in muscle size that occurs with long-term, resistance training. This reflects actual structural changes in the muscle as a result of an increase in either the number of muscle fibres (fibre hyperplasia) or the size of existing individual muscle fibres (fibre hypertrophy.’)
Sports massage can support and even speed up the healing and rebuilding of damaged tissue. When the therapist applies pressure to the muscles blood flow is encouraged. The increase in blood flow floods the muscles with essential nutrients which are used to repair tears.
As well as delivering vital nutrients, increasing blood flow can also serve to recirculate the metabolic waste that builds up and accumulates in the muscles during activity. Metabolic waste impairs the body’s capacity to heal itself. Thus, the sooner it is recirculated the sooner the body can get to work repairing and rebuilding.
#2: Sports therapy reduces injury
Injury is the bane of the sport- and exercise enthusiast’s life. To those who love keeping active, the thought of injury induces dread. For they know all too well that it only takes a pull at the base of the calf, or twinge in the lower back, to be put out of action.
Thankfully, there are a number of things we can do to reduce the likelihood of suffering an injury. For example, observing the three fundamentals of training – warming up, cooling down, and stretching – is one of the easiest ways to minimise pulling a muscle or popping a ligament.
Related: Learn the essentials of exercise: warm-ups, cool-downs and stretching
But the fundamentals offer only limited protection. There is more we can and should be doing, to safeguard against injury.
Regular sports massage has been shown to be effective at decreasing injury susceptibility. The friction caused by deep tissue massage generates heat in the muscle. As well as increasing muscle elasticity and plasticity, heat relieves muscle tension which reduces injury (Sports Injuries – 3rd Edition).
Moreover, massage helps to break down and remove knots in the muscles. Knots, sometimes known as ‘muscle trigger points’, can be small, golf ball-like areas in the muscle that can be painful to the touch.
While trigger points are usually benign, they can induce discomfort and limit the range of movement (ROM) in the muscle. As well as adversely impacting exercise performance, restricted ROM can increase injury risk. Of course, tight muscles are more prone to pulls, strains and tears.
#3: Sports massage improves athletic performance
Sports massage supports physical performance in many ways. By reducing injury risk, you are able to maintain training frequency. One of the surest methods of improving fitness and athletic performance is by participating in exercise regularly.
Because sports massage promotes increased blood flow, muscles are provided with an influx of nutrients. These nutrients aid the repair of damaged tissue while also providing some of the raw material for building new muscle fibres. It is this biological process of ‘damage and repair’ that results in physiological development and thus improved performance.
But sports massage enhances physical performance in other ways as well.
While not all the benefits of sports massage are supported by research, one oft-reported positive outcome is reduced fatigue. By encouraging blood flow and facilitating repair, massage improves post-exercise recovery. This perhaps accounts for why sports massage features prominently in elite level sports: professional cyclists, for example, conclude every training ride with a deep tissue massage.
Another way sports massage is believed to promote physical performance is by shortening both the duration and severity of the delayed onset of muscle soreness (DOMS). After intense exercise ‘the DOMS’ can be so severe that training participation is impaired – sometimes for up to a week.
The inability to fully maximise training time can slow progress. Using sports massage to speed up recovery and shorten the severity of the DOMS enables the athlete to reduce the duration of training lulls. Furthermore, they are also able to train at higher intensities which is of the essential prerequisites for improved physical performance.
#4: Sports promotes psychological wellbeing
A frequently reported positive outcome of sports massage is a sense of psychological wellbeing. The feeling of relaxation that follows a massage has long been recognised. Hence why massage has been used as a non-intrusive form of therapy and rehabilitation for thousands of years.
Sports massage achieves this feel-good effect by inducing a state of relaxation. But massage has also been shown to stimulate the release of mood-boosting hormones such as oxytocin and serotonin.
In addition, there is also evidence to suggest that a good sports massage can suppress stress hormones like cortisol and other glucocorticoids.
Another way that sports massage influences psychological wellbeing is by improving confidence. Analogous to taking your car for a service, when you take your body for a spin after a massage it typically runs smoother and there is often a distinct absence of aches and pains.
As well as making movement generally more pleasant, the improved handling that we experience after a massage can also improve confidence when engaging in exercise.
Sports massage FAQ
What makes a good sports massage therapist?
Arguably the single most important characteristic of a sports massage therapist is the ability to apply the correct technique safely. And they must be able to do this during every massage.
In conjunction with the above attribute, the therapist should support practical application with sound theoretical insight. Throughout a massage, the therapist should inform the client of the muscles being worked, plus providing insight into problematic areas.
Moreover, the therapist also ought to solicit feedback from the client concerning levels of discomfort.
Other qualities that make for a good therapist include being attentive to the client’s needs and ensuring that they leave the clinic in a better state than when they entered it.
Is dry needling effective?
Dry needling is not for everyone – especially people who have a phobia of needles. However, as a technique for dispersing muscle trigger points (knots) and stopping nerve spasms, dry needling is one of the most effective and efficient.
Many people, who were initially sceptical of the procedure, are often amazed at how quickly dry needling takes effect. With traditional massaging a muscle trigger point must be manually ‘worked’, rather like a baker kneads dough, to break it down. Particularly nasty knots can take minutes or even multiple sessions before they have been dispersed. This of course can induce considerable discomfort for the client.
In contrast, dry needling can conquer even the most stubborn knots in a fraction of the time.
Is a sports massage gun worth it?
Of course, like foam rollers and other DIY therapeutic tools, a massage gun cannot take the place of an experienced sports massage therapist. But for additional and supplementary myofascial release, massage guns can be helpful.
The massage gun that I recommend as a therapist is the MKHS Percussion Muscle Massager Gun.
As well as offering a wide range of power settings, the MKHS massage gun is super-robust.
How often should I have a sports massage?
The answer to that question really depends on how often you exercise or play sport and to what level.
For example, a professional athlete might undergo some form of therapeutic treatment after every training session – certainly after every competition: concluding a cool-down and a debrief, grand tour cyclists are straight on the bench for their obligatory deep tissue massage.
But for average Joe, those who maintain a modest exercise regime, perhaps one that consists of three to five weekly sessions, a single monthly massage should more than suffice.