If you are a social media user, you’d have seen lots of ads promoting sports massage. Specifically, that it reduces injury risk, improves recovery, or boost sports performance.
These claims are made by physiotherapists and massage therapists alike. However, what does research say?
What is sports massage?
Sports massage is a general term used to describe soft tissue techniques that are provided to athletes with the intent of improving recovery or even treating injuries
According to Yeo, a senior sports physiotherapist at Singapore Sports Institute, post-activity massage is used to release tension within a muscle. She was also clear in stating that “there is not enough research evidence to say that it helps with muscle recovery.”
What happens in a sports massage? What is the difference between sports massage and regular massage?
From my research, sports massage typically begins with a consultation. A massage therapist will speak to you about your current health and lifestyle as well as the relevant medical history. The reason is because sports massage is tailored to suit your problem/complaint.
This is perhaps the biggest difference between a sports massage and a relaxing massage. In a regular massage, the therapist is more likely to work their way through multiple body regions and focusing on places that they perceive to need more work. In sports massage, the practitioner will consult with you to understand better what is the main problem before working on you.
Sports massage is a collection of multiple techniques rather than a specialised soft tissue therapy on its own.
Does sports massage work?
This is a question that most people don’t ask because the narratives about sports massage make so much sense.
Like, if I’ve a particularly stressful day and I were to go for a foot massage, I’ll feel better.
If your calves are aching from too much shopping in Bangkok, you’d probably for for a massage and feel better too.
Most of us have good experiences with massages and the symptomatic relief from massage is something we are personally familiar with.
So, we don’t really ask if sports massage work.
We assume it does.
But what does research say? Hur hur hur.
Does research support the benefits of sports massage?
Just a few days ago, the largest study on massage was published. It looked at the effects of sports massage on performance and recovery and found:
- No significant improvement in athletic performance across sports – sprinting, jumping, strength, endurance or flexibility, or in fatigue.
- A small benefit in reducing or preventing DOMS.
- A small but significant improvement in flexibility compared with no intervention.
The keyword here is small.
Does sports massage improve flexibility?
According to the authors’ summary, there is a small but significant improvement.
- If you were to dig deeper into the paper, you’ll find that while some studies showed an increase in range of motion (i.e. flexibility) compared to controls (just resting), there are also studies which shown no difference.
- A study that reported improvement in hamstring flexibility after massage found that the increase in flexibility was transient. This means their range of motion returned back to baseline measurements soon after receiving massage.
Remember the sports physiotherapist who suggested massage could help with muscle tension?
One of the studies measured passive leg tension and found no difference on EMG findings. This means the amount of muscle tension is the same before and after massage.
This really should come as no surprised, really.
I’ve written extensively on how improvement in range of motion can be easily achieved with stretching. The problem is that such changes are transient.
We have research to show that despite the increase in flexibility, muscle tension or muscle fiber length largely remained the same.
The reason why your range of motion increases with stretching or massage is because you are more tolerant of the stretch sensation. Therefore, you can move more into the end range. Once this tolerance dissipates, your range of motion will also return to your baseline.
In short, it is true sports massage may increase your flexibility in the immediate-term. However, whether this change is meaningful is debatable.
Does massage help with athletic performance?
I think physiotherapists and massage therapists really up-sell on this.
Let’s examine the facts.
Out of the 12 studies that look into strength, only two studies showed a positive effect. Two studies showed a negative reduced in strength. The rest showed no changes. Meta-analysis of these studies showed that massage doesn’t improve strength performance.
As for endurance performance, three studies were identified. Again, massage didn’t improve endurance performance. One of the studies actually showed active recovery to perform better than massage or passive recovery.
The interesting thing is that studies have repeatedly demonstrated that strength and conditioning significantly improve outcomes for endurance sports.
Just for a refresher, these are the positive changes you can get from strength and conditioning:
- 3.2% increase in 1RM and 26% increase in rate of force development.
- Improvement in running economy by 2-8%.
- Faster time trial performances by 2-5%.
- Faster 10km time trial with LESS mileage if you add sprint and plyometric training.
- NO CHANGE IN BODY COMPOSITION!!
That’s wonderful right?
Why are we still promoting sports massage?
When it comes to if sports massage works, the data speaks for itself.
I’ve nothing against sports massage, mind you. I totally enjoy a good foot reflexology massage.
My pet peeve is when people start to make false claims and lead innocent athletes down the wrong rabbit hole. It’s unfortunately because people think they are getting better with sports massage when they are in fact not.
I don’t offer sports massage or any form of manual therapy at Square One Active Recovery. The reason is simple, they don’t work.
If you are open to trying something different and looking to find freedom from pain, book in an appointment with me to discover the difference the right care can make.