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How Massage Therapy Can Improve Athletic Performance and Health

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Increasingly, massage therapy is being included in alternative health policy packages. There’s a reason why massage is often prescribed—and a steadfast training ritual—for high-performing athletes. It works. In fact, deep tissue massage after an intense workout actually causes muscles to enlarge and grow new mitochondria (the hub of energy production), making it a favorite for body builders and fitness models.

However, massage therapy is also wildly popular for helping muscles to recover, prep the body for demanding workouts, and generally create stronger, healthier athletes. Massage is no longer considered “just” a recovery for athletic performance, but a must-have training tool.

The American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA) considers massage a means of reducing pain, maintaining focus, lessening recovery time, improving performance, and preventing injuries. Massage leads to one of two major responses. It either causes a mechanical response thanks to the movement and pressure of massage, or a reflex response when nerves respond accordingly to massage (as in the mitochondria example).

What does this mean for the athlete, or anyone interested in massage for better workouts?

A Physiological Perspective

Massage impacts the cardiovascular system of the body by dilating blood vessels. This helps the vessels to work better and encourages circulation. Manually manipulating blood flow to the heart means more fresh oxygen being delivered throughout the body—and toxins being removed at a faster clip. Plus, the naturally relaxing state that massage puts clients in lowers blood pressure. Training the body to achieve low blood pressure rates during relaxation is paramount for any athlete (and it’s what’s prioritized during HIIT training).

However, massage is better known as a helper for the muscular system of the body. Thanks to the improved blood circulation, muscle tension and soreness can be relieved. This means a faster recovery, and not missing workouts because of soreness. According to research in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, such a state helps muscles get “an increase in range of motion and flexibility.” This is, of course, a goal in every type of training. Better ROM and flexibility will improve any athlete’s performance.

According to researchers at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in Ontario’s McMaster University, massage minimizes inflammation. It’s part of the mitochondria-building phenomenon. Ultimately, this means it’s a natural pain reliever even while muscles undergo hypertrophy (increase in size). While not every athlete is pursuing hypertrophy, it’s a popular and helpful side effect of many sports (not to mention aesthetics).

A Psychological Approach

What does massage have to do with mental health? The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness notes that “being athletic” requires more than physical stamina. “Tactical maneuvering in cycling or an ability to focus on a task … can also affect performance.” That’s where the term, “Get your head in the game” comes from. The mental health benefits of massage can include an increase in concentration, focus and determination. Clearly, all three of these attributes are a must for athletes. Physical strength can only get you so far. Reducing tension, stress and anxiety while treating depression are all paramount if you want to achieve athletic greatness. Why not choose an activity, like massage, which gives you the best of all worlds?

Massage benefits mental health by charging the parasympathetic nervous system. You get a dose of dopamine, and increase in serotonin, and your cortisol levels lower during massage. All three of these elements are connected to stress. It’s no surprise that an athlete who’s relaxed with little tension has their head in the game. Regardless of the task, whether it’s an Olympic athlete or an average person heading to the gym after work, massage can help make the workout better and more efficient.

Customizing Your Massage

There are numerous types of massages, and even those that are specifically for athletes. Sports massage (of course) and deep tissue massage are often recommended for athletes. While stone massages and gentle massages might feel good, and certainly benefit your mental health, you might be missing out on some of the physical perks. However, keep in mind that deep tissue and sports massages don’t always “feel good.” In fact, they can be very uncomfortable.

Sports massage will vary and is personalized based on you, your body, and your goals. However, it usually involves a fast pace and a lot of stretching. The client is an active participant. LMTs meet with the client beforehand to go over their athletics and any injuries or painful spots. Designing a pre-workout stretch routine with an LMT is a great way to prep the body via massage even on days when massages aren’t scheduled. In many cases, an LMT will design pre-event, intermediate (during events), and post-event massages for professional athletes.

Deep tissue is usually reserved for specific problems or niche areas. As the name implies, it includes intense pressure that gets into deep tissues or muscles that are tough to reach (think inside the pelvic bone). Deep tissue massage is arguably the most uncomfortable, but when performed by a skilled LMT it can release tension an athlete is holding tightly—sometimes for years. It’s common to feel worse after a deep tissue massage for a few hours or even days, so it’s not a massage to schedule right before an athletic event.

Timing is Everything

Just like any health benefit, the occasional massage isn’t going to do much for your athletic performance. Regular, designed massages are required to really get any benefits beyond it “feeling good.” The more massages you get, within reason, the more benefits. There’s no one size fits all regimen, but at least once per week is recommended. Pre-event massages for special events like a marathon are also a good idea, but avoid seeing a new LMT before a big event.

Depending on the type of massage and your unique body, it can take three to five days post-massage for any lingering side effects to go away and to enjoy the full benefits of that particular session. If you simply want to be pampered, a light massage can increase blood flow and help with relaxation, but will do little to actually help muscles recover.

Always ensure your massage therapist is an LMT, and check with your health insurance policy to see if some or part of massage therapy is covered (you may be surprised!). For those on a budget, looking for massage schools in the area is a great way to save. LMTs in training are observed by their professors, and you can get a steal on your newest athletic accoutrement.

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