Recently, dedicated post-exercise recovery boutiques and health club workshops have become more popular in the sports and fitness world. Although post-exercise routines may seem like a novel “aha moment” to some, for sports massage therapists and athletes alike, post-exercise recovery has long been just as important as the competition itself.
“Recovery strategies and techniques help the body return to some measure of homeostasis after intense physical stress,” says Ann E. Boone, LMT, teacher of kinesiology and ethics at the Lexington Healing Arts Academy, Lexington, Kentucky. “It’s much more than what I’d call a cooldown. Recovery can minimize muscle soreness, so the athlete is at an optimal performance.”
For elite athletes, that may mean being able to compete at maximum potential in the next day’s race. For weekend warriors, that may mean nimbly hopping aboard the commuter train come Monday morning. Regardless of athletic prowess, a proper recovery strategy post-workout or athletic event is essential, and research tells us that a targeted sports massage takes the recovery process up a notch.
A Matter of Fact
There is growing evidence to support post-event massage therapy:
- Addressing delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), a 2018 meta-analysis, published in Frontiers in Physiology, reports that sports massage appears to be the “most effective method” for reducing DOMS.1 Going further, a study published in the Journal of Athletic Training reports that, “Massage was effective in alleviating DOMS by approximately 30 percent.”2
- A review titled, “Massage Therapy Attenuates Inflammatory Signaling After Exercise-Induced Muscle Damage,” published in Science Translational Medicine, concludes that post-event massage “speeds up muscle healing by activating molecules that reduce inflammation and promote mitochondrial growth.” In addition, the study found that massage therapy increases range of motion in muscles.3
- A study published in the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy notes that an immediate post-event massage may increase an athlete’s range of motion.4
Recovery Sports Massage
With recovery sports massage focused on rebalancing an athlete’s physically stressed body, traditional techniques center around lighter, smoother strokes that move toward the heart.
“Compression, effleurage and passive stretching are the three basic movements I use,” says Mosi Blane, certified massage therapist (CMT), owner, Beach Bum Massage Therapy in Chino, California. “This may change depending on the athlete’s level and type of activity, but now is never the time for anything deep or intense.”
As for session duration, a post-event sports massage typically spans 10 to 20 minutes when done soon after activity. In some instances, however, a post-event massage may be more effective a day or two later, in which case the time duration is up to the individual massage therapist and athlete.
Why the time delay? “It can take 24 to 48 hours to know which muscles are short and tight,” says Diane Hood, BCMT, LMT, owner of Body Mechanix Athletics in Springfield, Missouri. “Intense activity increases blood flow as well as adrenaline, which can mask potential injuries for a day or so. In that case, immediate post-event can’t tell you where the real work needs to be done.”
There’s value on many levels for both immediate and next-day post-event massage therapy, emphasizes Andrew Abramson, LMT, LSW, owner of Synergy Sports & Corrective Massage, LLC in Villanova, Pennsylvania. “Ultimately, the best time for a post-event massage depends on the athlete. Many athletes come off the court or field and immediately get treatment. Others feel it’s best for them to wait, sometimes up to two days post-event. There’s no right or wrong way.”
While science continues to study the effects of recovery sports massage, anecdotal reports deliver increased acceptance. Here are several insights based on professional experience. Push the pause button before beginning a post-event massage. When an athlete is in physiological distress, from an injury to feeling nauseated or dizzy, you do not want to work on this person. Every massage therapist knows this. “Sometimes, though, an athlete doesn’t realize they’re in distress after they first cross the finish line,” Blane cautions. “That’s why I try to wait 30 minutes between an event ending and beginning a recovery massage. It’s a good timeframe to figure out the athlete’s physical well-being.”
A little light banter tells you if it’s safe for a post-event recovery massage. “You want to engage the athlete just enough to know that they’re alert, coherent and not suffering a medical crisis—like heat exhaustion or heat stroke,” Boone says. “So you might ask how the race went, what their time was or how they feel.”
Use your discretion when it comes to an athlete removing certain pieces of clothing for a post-event massage. Boone offers this heads-up when it comes to athletes exerting themselves in longer events, such as a marathon. “A lot of athletes finish a race with bloody feet or toenails, and it’s in everyone’s best interest to keep shoes on. After longer, intense competitions, we also use disposable plastic table covers, because these athletes don’t stop for anything.”
If doing post-event massages on athletes you don’t routinely work on, prep by studying these athletes’ sport. Ideally, you want to know the athlete and how their body recovers after strenuous activity, since some athletes naturally recover quicker than others. “If that’s not possible, you can still make a difference if you know how different athletes use different muscles and what the body goes through in any particular sport,” Blane says. “In baseball, for example, outfielders, infielders, catchers, pitchers—they all use different muscle groups.”
Resist the “too much, too long, too deep combo” before an athlete can handle it. “Depending on the athlete and their performance level, some people still feel sore the day after an event, or even two days after. So it’s important to work within the athlete’s pain level while initiating changes in their muscle tissue,” Hood cautions. “Too much muscle manipulation when the athlete is still sore and tired from competition can be detrimental to recovery and even cause more inflammation and fatigue.”
When done one day after a big event, a post-event sports massage is more about meeting an athlete’s immediate goals. “Now the athlete can better communicate what needs to be accomplished, whether that’s helping to decrease swelling and fluid retention, working on a new issue or continuing work on a chronic issue,” Abramson explains.
Blane offers one final tip to every sports massage therapist: Think outside the court, track and field. “When people hear ‘sports massage,’ they automatically think professional athlete,” she says. “We could just as easily be talking about a 4-year-old tap dancer, an Olympic athlete, someone just getting back into working out and anyone who puts physical stress on their body by doing something outside of their daily life activities. Post-event massage is amazing for everyone.”
Keep Your Head in the Game
Initiate a discussion about post-event sports massage and thoughts immediately turn to how it jump-starts the body’s physical healing process after strenuous activity. However, evidence also points to the role post-exercise massage plays in regenerating an athlete’s psychological aspects of recovery, such as reversing mental fatigue, restoring a sense of calm and well-being, a reduction in anxiety and an improvement in mood and perceived relaxation and recovery.5,6
If recovery massage promotes a flood of positive psychological effects, it’s entirely possible that the athlete will use this frame of mind to believe in themself today and their performance tomorrow.
Massage Therapy Journal
1. Dupuy O, Douzi W, Theurot D, Bosquet L, Dugué B. "An Evidence-Based Approach for Choosing Post-exercise Recovery Techniques to Reduce Markers of Muscle Damage, Soreness, Fatigue, and Inflammation: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis." Front Physiol. 2018;9:403.
2. Zainuddin Z, Newton M, Sacco P, Nosaka K. "Effects of massage on delayed-onset muscle soreness, swelling, and recovery of muscle function." J Athl Train. 2005;40(3):174-180.
3. Crane, J. D. et al. "Massage therapy attenuates inflammatory signaling after exercise-induced muscle damage." Sci. Transl. Med. 4, 119ra13 (2012).
4. Crosman LJ, Chateauvert SR, Weisberg J. "The effects of massage to the hamstring muscle group on range of motion." J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 1984;6(3):168-172.
5. Hemmings B, Smith M, Graydon J, Dyson R. "Effects of massage on physiological restoration, perceived recovery, and repeated sports performance." Br J Sports Med. 2000;34(2):109-115. doi:10.1136/ bjsm.34.2.109.
6. Arroyo-Morales M, Olea N, Martínez MM, Hidalgo- Lozano A, Ruiz-Rodríguez C, Díaz-Rodríguez L. "Psychophysiological effects of massage-myofascial release after exercise: a randomized sham-control study." J Altern Complement Med. 2008;14(10):1223- 1229.