Sports Massage 101

Anyone who has ever been to a spa or massage clinic has most likely seen a menu of services and massage modalities to choose from. One of the services most likely to be on that list is sports massage.

While most people will agree that sports massage is generally geared toward athletes or those who regularly workout, many will have their own interpretation of what defines sports massage. Depending on who you ask, some might say it is simply massage performed on an athlete, deep tissue with stretching, Swedish with deep pressure, or massage that treats a sprain or strain.

While sports massage may incorporate different pressure, techniques and stretches, simply put, it is an integrative part of an athletes training program with the purpose of preventing injuries and building up endurance while improving his or her health and ability to perform.

Sports massage is commonly broken down by three different categories: pre-event, post-event, and rehabilitative, each of which is performed at different times with different goals.

Pre-event massage is meant to invigorate and stimulate the muscles in preparation for performance. For example, someone getting ready to run a 10K race would receive a fast paced massage with lots of rocking, jostling and friction. The goal is to stimulate the body's sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) so that the muscles are warm and ready to go. The last thing this client needs is to be relaxed.

Post-event massage, on the other hand, is slow and deliberate. The strokes are more broad and flowing with some light kneading, and light to moderate pressure. The muscles are most likely fatigued, sore, and swollen, therefore the goal is to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (resting and digesting) and to aid the body in getting rid of waste via the lymphatic system. It is usually administered thirty minutes to a few hours after an event and, in some more extreme cases, may involve sustained direct pressure or ice to areas with severe muscle spasms. In fact, I have even worked on runners after a marathon who needed an IV due to severe spasms in many parts of the body at once.

Rehabilitative sports massage for the gastrocnemius muscle.

Rehabilitative sports massage for the gastrocnemius muscle.

Rehabilitative sports massage can be thought of as regular maintenance between events. This type can vary greatly on techniques used and intensity depending on the athlete and the overall condition of the muscles. A typical session could involve, but not be limited to: Swedish strokes, deep tissue, myofascial techniques, cupping, neuromuscular (trigger point) therapy and active techniques like proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) and muscle energy techniques to restore anatomical muscle length and tension.

Whether you're a power lifter, ballet dancer, Ironman triathlete, or just an avid runner, sports massage can be an integral part of your training regimen by helping to prevent injuries, enable you to train harder, perform better, and recover faster.