Go for the Gold

Sports massage techniques and strategies will vary depending on the athlete's sport.

By Donna Shryer, May 1, 2020

Runner from behind running down middle of tree-lined road

In the past, some athletes may have viewed sports massage therapy as something done only after a demanding physical performance. While post-event benefits remain a vital part of sports massage, the story goes much deeper.

Today, we know that sports massage plays an increasingly significant role during an athlete’s training season, as well as mere hours before an event.

Train of Thought

Every athlete and every training program is unique, so there is no one set-in-stone formula for athletes and massage therapists working together. A therapist is always adapting strokes to suit an athlete’s needs and training goals. “A cyclist versus a hurdler have very different concerns in terms of massage,” says Ann E. Boone, LMT, teacher of kinesiology and ethics at the Lexington Healing Arts Academy, Lexington, Kentucky. “You want to make sure that you’re not treating everyone the same.”

That said, three techniques, all integral to Swedish massage, create a good starting place.

  • Effleurage, a French word meaning “to skim” or “touch lightly,” is a series of massage strokes that warm up the muscles before deeper work. The long, slow strokes help a therapist sense and palpate underlying tissues. The technique also works at the end of a sports massage, providing a gradual therapy close.
  • Petrissage, from another French word meaning “to knead,” uses slow, rhythmic movements to knead muscles and fascia. The effect helps stretch and relax muscles while also increasing local blood circulation. Research suggests that petrissage can be effective for alleviating delayed onset of muscle soreness (DOMS), improve muscle performance and improve recovery from muscle stiffness.1,2,3
  • Tapotement, again from the French and meaning “to tap or pat,” is characterized by rapid, rhythmic, percussion-like hand movements. At the end of a massage session, tapotement helps bring the athlete back to a grounded consciousness.

Gearing Up for Down Time

For many athletes, off-season is time to score performance improvements, which means rigorous training and exercise. Sometimes the focus is big picture, aiming for a faster recovery time, increased stamina, amped up power, intensified strength, decreased injury risks or enhanced flexibility. Other times, the athlete wants to improve a specific chronic issue, such as a hip imbalance, persistent pain, muscle stiffness or scar mobility.4

Between research studies and what sports massage therapists have learned from clients, here’s what we know about helping an athlete train for the gold.

Off-season training can take athletes outside their comfort zone. Stretching beyond an athlete’s customary game plan might trigger sore or fatigued muscles not usually taxed during prime competition season. That, Boone says, calls for acute awareness on the massage therapist’s part. “When a sport’s season is in full swing, massage therapies tend to be a little more sport-specific and predictable.

Pre-season workouts, however, can involve novel training disciplines that bring unexpected aches and imbalances. So during training season, the massage therapist may need to adapt.” For example, consider the professional foot-ball player who attends ballet classes during off-season to increase balance, flexibility, body awareness and timing. A traditional massage for an offensive tackle might not apply after five hours at the barre.

Contrary to popular belief, off-season training can be more physicall taxing than in-season activities. When in training, athletes sometimes push themselves farther and test their outer limits. All this excessive exercise can lead to acutely damaged skeletal muscle. Sports massage therapy appears to be clinically beneficial in such instances, helping to reduce inflammation and promote mitochondrial biogenesis.5

Training season is the ideal time to undo negative muscle memory. Using the same muscles over and over again in a specific discipline trains those muscles to move in a specific direction. Sometimes muscle memory should be left alone, even if it involves unusual movements. (Think Hank Aaron and his unique, cross-handed batting style.)

Other times, a coach and personal trainer may see muscle memory as an impediment that’s preventing an athlete from reaching their full potential. In this case, the massage therapist may be able to help recalibrate muscle memory, says Gretchen Dizer, LMT, BFA, MA, owner of Healing Pointe Massage in Niskayuna, New York. “Working directly with restrictions evident in fascial planes allows for redistribution of fluid and synchronization of soft tissue with structural components of the body. This helps facilitate overall balance for maximum athletic performance.”

Become a student of our client's sport. Being fluent in anatomy is a start, but there’s more, says David Abbott, LMT, certified neuromuscular therapist, trained sports massage therapist and owner of Core Massage, LLC, in Colorado Springs, Colorado. “If, for example, a football player comes to you as a client, but you’ve never played on or followed a football team, it’s going to be tough relating to the sport’s athletes, coaches, personal trainers and physicians,” Abbott adds. In other words, massage therapy techniques and strategies will be different for a golfer versus a gymnast—and the massage therapist needs to know why.

Be prepared to stick with an athlete throughout training season. “With time, you get to know an athlete’s body and understand how it reacts to certain training exercises,” says Jen Patterson, LMT, BS, owner of Massage 4 Wellness in Lexington, Kentucky, massage director of the Kentucky Sports Massage Team and the Ironman Louisville Massage Team. “So when an athlete says their hamstring did this ‘funny thing,’ you will, in time, instinctively know where to go and which muscle in the hamstring group to work with.”

During off-season, there's time to experiment with massage therapies. “Let’s say you’re working with a runner and the goal is to lengthen, shorten or balance muscles through the hips. You have time to try different therapeutic combinations and then ask your athlete if the massage technique helped or didn’t help,” Patterson says. “Maybe your massage approach was too much or not enough. You have time to tweak your approach and be creative.”

Preseason adjustments give the athlete time to adapt. Even when massage therapy helps achieve an improvement, such as increased range of motion or a more effective posture, the athlete still needs time to feel com-fortable with the adjustment, Abbott explains. “Anything that affects an athlete’s performance needs to begin months before peak season.”

Keep communication lines open with an athlete's personal trainer. Julie Lundberg, LMT, was the official massage therapist at The Institute for Sports and Spine in Plano, Texas, and she often worked closely with personal trainers as well as physical therapists. “We can both help increase an athlete’s range of motion and flexibility. Teaming up won’t necessarily quicken results, but I’ve found it does strengthen results.” And research backs up these claims.6,7

Massage may help avoid injury—in an unexpected way. “Athletes learn to tune out aches or fatigue and push through to the finish. I find that massage helps an athlete get back in touch with their body—and that awareness may very well help prevent injury,” Patterson says.

Help the athlete get some zzz's. Athletes in training may find their mind buzzing 24/7—strategizing and analyzing ad nauseum. An overly busy brain can prevent essential restorative sleep, which research says is another area where the massage therapist can have a positive impact.8

Game On

With training over and the athlete ready for competition, a therapist’s approach to sports massage changes. It’s time to think pre-event strategies.

Pre-event means anywhere from 15 minutes to two or three hours before an event. At this point, Boone says, you don’t want a lot of deep tissue work. “Your goal is to help the athlete relax and get their head in the game.” With that in mind, here are several pre-event massage insights.

The focus is on warm-up. When performed close to event start time, massage therapy is all about warming up the muscles and increasing blood circulation to the muscles. “The key is using just enough effort to start sending signals to the muscles that will be most engaged in the athlete’s specific sport,” Abbott says. “You want receptors within those muscles to start firing.”

Massage pairs well with warm-up stretches. Evidence suggests that massage may be an effective partner with sport-appropriate stretching as a component of a pre-event warm-up.9 “It supplements an athlete’s warm-up and prepares them for top performance,” Boone says.

Massage may soothe pregame jitters. Research confirms what many coaches already know—pre-competition athletes struggle with more stress than the average person, and that stress may be particularly biting before a compe-tition.10

We also know that massage can reduce stress.11 In fact, one small yet telling study found that twice-weekly one-hour massages helped decrease feelings of anxiety and also increased feelings of self-confidence.12,13 Sounds like a win-ning combination to help the athlete keep an eye on the prize when pre-competition jitters kick in.

Pre-event massage can help soothe athlete-specific physical reactions to emotions. “Many athletes feel multiple emotions connected to the sympathetic nervous system prior to an event, such as fear, anxiety and worry,” says Dizer. Of course, addressing anything remotely connected to sports psychology is far outside the massage therapist’s purview, Dizer cautions.

“However, if a client expresses an emotion with a physical response, that’s perfectly within my scope of practice. For example, do they clench their jaw or glutes? Is their breath quick and shallow? Massage therapy helps to physically address and develop attention to these physical reactions, fostering a state of readiness and connection between an athlete’s muscles and mind.”

Elite athletes, from Olympic winners to professional champs, have long applauded the merits of sports massage. Today, sports massage—along with everything else that’s essential to perform a sport—is gaining attention from amateur athletes and weekend warriors alike.

Consider this: The Global Sporting Goods Industry 2019 Research Report predicts noteworthy growth in the sporting goods market, primarily due to an increased number of health-conscious consumers building sports into their daily routine.14

So, as Americans continue their jog toward better health, it’s entirely likely that a proper sports shoe, better training equipment and a qualified sports massage therapist will carry equal importance in an athlete’s mind.


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10. United States Sports Academy America’s Sports University®. (n.d.). 

11. Massage therapy can relieve stress: American Massage Therapy Association.

12.Rapaport MH, Schettler PJ, Larson ER, et al. "Massage therapy for psychiatric disorders.Focus (Am Psychiatr Publ). 2018;16(1):24–31. 

13.Billhult A, Määttä S. "Light pressure massage for patients with severe anxiety." Complement Ther Clin Pract 15:96–101, 2009.

14.Global Sporting Goods Market 2019: Industry Trends, Future Growth, Regional Overview, Market Share, Size, Revenue, and Forecast Outlook till 2025. (2019, June 11).