The lowdown on sports massage

Osteopath and sports massage therapist Bhavesh Joshi explains the role of sports massage in a running training programme



Keep a machine in a good working order and it will serve you well”.

Sports massage has seen a great deal of popularity over the last decade, and a knowledgeable sports massage therapist can play a key role in the training routine not only for athletes, but all levels of runners.

The Sports Massage Association defines sports massage as "the application of soft tissue techniques with the aim of managing, manipulating and rehabilitating muscles, tendons and ligaments” - this essentially means all the soft tissue in the musculoskeletal system.

When to have a sports massage

If you're a regular runner, sports massage is an effective addition to a training schedule and treatments vary according to when and why you seek treatment. In general, there are four main types of treatment:

  • Pre-event massage
  • Post-event massage
  • Maintenance massage
  • Injury treatment

Pre-event
The aim of a pre-event massage is to get the body and tissues ready for the race ahead. It will help you run the race in more focused way and help to ward off injury by preparing muscles and joints for the race ahead. As the name suggests, it is best practised just before an event and the massage is performed at a fast, brisk pace - though not too deep - to get your muscles ready. Pre-event massage is sometimes available at races - get in contact with the race organiser to ask.

Post-event
A sports massage after a race is a great way to soothe and ease fatigued and tired tissues and prevent DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness). The pace of this massage is slow, rhythmical and gentle and it usually lasts for about 15-20 minutes. Post-event massage is often available at races - get in contact with the race organiser to ask.

Maintenance massage
This type of massage takes place in between training sessions and the aim is to work on specific elements and tissue structures which have become shortened, tight and painful. The idea is to loosen off tightness within soft tissues so as to improve performance and prevent injury. A variety of techniques can be used, ranging from deep tissue work, Trigger Point therapy, Muscle Energy Technique and mobilisation of joints, to specific stretching and strengthening. A typical sports maintenance massage can last from between 30 minutes to an hour and is a very helpful regular addition to a training propgramme, particularly if you're training for an endurance event, such as a half or full marathon.

Injury treatment
Sports massage can also be used to treat specific soft tissue injuries and a wide variety of techniques and methods can be used to reduce the recovery time and help get you back running. This type of treatment can last from between 30 minutes to an hour, dependent on the injury.

Finding a therapist

It's important to find a therapist with the right qualifications and one who comes recommended.

There are a large number of awarding bodies and self-regulating councils for sports massage therapists, though being a member of any organisation will not make any practitioner an expert. Look for a sports massage therapist who has trained in BTEC or ITEC and at level 4 or higher - the standards of these courses are well respected and nationally recognised.

What to expect

On your first visit expect to give a full medical history as well as provide an account of how you have injured yourself and/or what you hope to gain from the visit.

This should be followed by an examination, usually involving a basic postural analysis as well as active and passive examination. This will help the therapist get to the bottom of the culprit tissues as well as any predisposing factors to your problem. The overall clinical picture will help formulate a treatment plan and based on this soft tissue techniques will be used to achieve the desired goal.

It is important to keep several things in mind when you visit a therapist:

  • Keep your expectations real
  • It's your body - be aware of how you are reacting
  • If improvements are taking place, you are on the right track and it may be worth continuing
  • If there is no / little improvement, consider a re-evaluation. A good therapist will refer you to other specialists if the problem is out of their remit.

Does it work?

Although positive research is lacking in this field, there are plenty of anecdotal testimonials which show the significant benefits of sports massage. Research shows that there is moderate data supporting the use of massage to facilitate recovery from repetitive muscular contractions, as well as being effective in alleviating DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness - that achey feeling you get after tough exercise) by approximately 30%. Additionally, an article published in the journal Psychological Bulletin on the effects of Massage therapy (MT) claims its "effects on state anxiety, trait anxiety, and depression may come about as a result of MT’s influence on body chemistry.... the ability of a course of MT treatment to provide lasting pain relief may result from the mechanical promotion of circulation and breakdown of adhesions, or from improved sleep promoted by the treatment."

Bhavesh Joshi is an osteopath, sports massage therapist, acupuncturist and principal of the London School of Massage, londonschoolofmassage.co.uk.


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