Sports massage is one of the most effective ways to make the most of your post-exercise recovery period. If you are frequently pushing your body during your workouts, you are likely to experience muscle soreness and fatigue on a regular basis. This is natural – it’s a vital way to build strength, improve endurance and increase flexibility. Incorporating massage therapy into your exercise regime will do more than reduce soreness – it will also relax you and help you look forward to your next workout session.
When you’ve had a good massage, you know that it did some physical good. You feel less ‘heavy’ because there’s less tension in your muscles. The soreness from pulled, strained muscles is much less. The aches seem to fade away. There are actually several physiological reasons for this. A professional massage therapist can expertly manipulate your body, stroking the muscles in ways that increase the flow of blood throughout the tissues. Stimulating blood circulation is important for replenishing the tissues of their nutrients. An increased flow of blood means an increased supply of nutrients and oxygen to the exhausted muscles and an increased rate that waste products can be removed. This means muscles are fed the nutrients they need to heal and re-energise themselves.
A massage therapist can help you stretch properly. By properly lengthening your muscles, you ensure that blood can get to every part of your body and the overworked areas get a chance to replenish their energy stores. This leads to reduced tension and relieves pressure from the sore areas.
What benefits can a sports massage have on the body?
According to a report posted by the American Massage Therapy Association in 2011, research has shown that massage:
• Reduces muscle tension
• Helps tone muscle
• Promotes relaxation
• Increases range of motion and overall flexibility
• Improves tissue function
• Reduces muscle stiffness and fatigue after exercise
• Reduces delayed onset muscle soreness and swelling
• Improves athletic performance
• May prevent injuries if massage therapy is used on a regular basis
Individuals who participate in vigorous exercise and challenging athletic regimes often seek ways to enhance their performance, improve physical endurance, prevent injury and help in maintaining high levels of fitness. Massage therapy at the hands of professional therapists can help these individuals get the improvements they’re after.
However, what evidence is there to support this?
In 1997, researchers at the University of Essex investigated the effectiveness of massage on alleviating muscle soreness caused by strenuous exercise. The original report, published in the BMJ in 1998, stated that delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is a painful condition that often develops after “unaccustomed eccentric exercise” (see http://bjsm.bmj.com/content/bjsports/32/3/212.full.pdf). Muscle soreness is a tell-tale sign that a workout has been challenging. It is a frequent problem in athletes because it temporarily handicaps them. The soreness usually fades after three to four days of relative inactivity, but this is less than ideal. It interrupts training and so can affect athletic performance and endurance building. Needless to say, delayed onset muscle soreness is a nuisance.
There is no universally accepted treatment for this and so an effective approach has been in demand for many years. Various treatments have been tried, including electrical nerve stimulation, ultrasound, painkillers, anti-inflammatory drugs, steroids and vitamin C (as listed in the 1997 original report). None of these treatments have fully worked. However, massage is one approach that appears to provide the greatest benefits. Thus, this is what the researchers at the University of Essex investigated.
In the study, 20 volunteers were divided into two groups and both completed intense exercise programs that were meant to induce DOMS. One received either three massages after the programs and carried out “warm up” and “cool down” exercises. The other group received no massages. It was found that the pain from DOMS was noticeably reduced in the group that received massage therapy. There was also a more rapid decline in the levels of lactic acid in their bodies. This led the researchers to theorise that massage intervenes in the bodily processes that follow strenuous exercise. Muscle soreness is caused by a variety of processes, including the build-up of metabolic waste, the production of a factor that causes pain and spasms, and the release of by-products that sensitise nerve endings. In short, exercise induces the body to produce factors that cause pain and massage inhibits the production.
Psychological benefits of massage
Post-exercise recovery is about more than physical healing. Working out is mentally exhausting as well as being physically demanding. For example, if you’re trying to lose weight, you may be under pressure, particularly if the weight isn’t coming off as quickly as you’d like to. If you’re training for a sports event, the pressure and tension may be piled high on your shoulders. As well as this, not achieving physical goals or suffering from injuries and being unable to resume your performance can be mentally challenging. Massage can benefit your mind as well as your body.
Regular sessions of massage therapy have been known to alleviate many mental-related conditions, including stress, tension, anxiety, insomnia and even depression. This is because human touch is very comforting and the sensation of someone’s soft hands can lower blood pressure, calm your mind and have an overall therapeutic effect on your body. Stress, anxiety and depression can affect motivation, which will make it difficult to stay committed to a workout regime. When we’re stressed, we tend to turn to comfort eating, bingeing on TV shows and avoiding exercise. We may struggle to sleep, tossing and turning as our worries keep us up, so we wake up feeling groggy and even more reluctant to make it to the gym. This is where the relaxing sensations of a massage come in handy.
Is massage therapy the answer for you?
Whether or not you’re convinced that massage is a proper form of therapy, evidence seems to suggest that regularly getting a massage or increasing the frequency of your sessions during times of strenuous exercise holds some significant benefits. Massage therapy manipulates the body, thus stimulating blood circulation and speeding up the delivery of nutrients to the tissues while removing waste by-products. This means muscles can heal and recover a quicker rate, so lessening the pain of DOMS. Massage is also psychologically wonderful as it helps to alleviate stress-related symptoms and boosting your mood so that you’re motivated to return to your workout program.
As for whether massage therapy will bring about any long term benefits, only time will tell.
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