Game Plan: Sports Massage for Athletes on Event Day

Sports massage on event day helps to prepare an athlete for competition, but your approach maybe different than massage for training or recovery.

By Donna Shryer, August 1, 2020

Massage just prior to or during an athletic event may seem counterintuitive. To begin with, there’s zero time to recover from potentially sore muscles. There’s also the possible relaxation response to massage—precisely when an athlete wants to be most alert and focused.

Good points, and precisely why pre- and mid-event sports massage is far different than what’s done when an athlete is in training or recovery. As some sports teams resume competition after months of modified conditioning—and to potentially very different competitive environments—making sure the basics are covered is more important than ever.

Keep Your Eye on the Goal

Pre- and mid-event sports massage therapies share an overarching goal and the same range of techniques. The overlap makes sense when you consider definitions.

  • A pre-event sports massage typically happens between 10 to 60 minutes before an event to prepare an athlete’s body for activity.
  • A mid-event sports massage typically hap-pens between 10 to 60 minutes before an athlete resumes activity, whether that’s heading back to the field after halftime or getting set for a second track and field event.

In both instances, it’s about prepping the body for activity, which means maximizing blood flow to the muscles that an athlete will use most in competition, explains Jim Earley, LMT, licensed sports massage therapist. “When blood flow is at its best, it takes longer for a muscle group to fatigue and makes recovery after competition easier,” he says.

Sports massage techniques that best achieve this goal are quicker, lighter strokes that help loosen soft tissue, reduce adhesion and steer clear of any invasive strokes used to make adjustments during the off-season. “That means no deep tissue work,” says Penny Capps, board-certified massage therapist and a certi-fied sports massage therapist. “The last thing you want to do before or during competition is make a modification that throws off the athlete’s game.”

Capps offers these as the go-to traditional pre- and mid-event sports massage strokes:

  • Pump compressions or compressions
  • Gliding or effleurage
  • Broad cross-fiber friction

Depending on an athlete’s personal preference, Capps adds, strokes may include jostling or shaking, petrissage or kneading, and direct pressure. Some athletes and sports massage therapists also feel that stretching is integral to a pre-event sports massage—although the topic remains open for debate.

Micah Schaefer, LMT, certified sports massage therapist, offers stretching pros and cons. “It can help improve an athlete’s range of motion, but to accomplish this, the massage therapist should know how an athlete’s body responds to stretching techniques. On the other hand, if I’ve never worked with an athlete before, it’s possible to do more harm than good. So unless requested or it’s part of an established routine with a specific client, I leave stretching to the athlete.”

Emerging Proof

While pre- and mid-event sports massage is commonly supported among athletes, trainers, physical therapists and, of course, sports massage therapists, research demonstrating its efficacy is scarce. Here are a few limited and smaller studies.

At the very least, studies indicate a need for additional research.

  • A review of documented injuries and treatments incurred by athletes during the United States Track and Field Olympic Trials, June 28 through July 10, 2016, reports that 41.8 percent of medical services prescribed by physicians involved massage therapists.1
  • After testing the effect of sports massage on strength for eight amateur boxers, findings provide support for the psychological benefits of pre- and mid-event sports massage.2
  • In a study including 11 female high-intensity cycle sprinters, some women passively rested in between sprints and some received a 10-minute massage in between sprints. Performance recovery was significantly better in the massage group.3

Play by the Rules

Beyond an overarching goal and specific techniques, additional characteristics separate pre- and mid-event sports massage from off-season and post-event sports massage. Many of these distinctions are unwritten rules and often only learned with experience.

These massages are typically short, lasting between a few minutes to 15 minutes. “The duration usually depends on how many muscle groups need to be worked on,” says Felix Patterson, LMT, with experience as a massage therapist on the United States Olympics Sports Medicine Team at the U.S. Olympics Training Facility in Colorado Springs, Colorado. “For example, with a wrestler, you work on the lower back, torso, legs and arms—so you’ll need more time.”

Time per massage also comes down to how many sports massage therapists are available for an event, Patterson adds. “If I’m the only therapist working with a college football team on game day, then I have to do the math. How many athletes need my attention before the game begins? It’s easy to forget this step—since it’s not something you do on an average day with scheduled appointments.”

Ask the athlete how loose they want their muscles to be. While pre- and mid-event sports massage aim to loosen muscles, some athletes prefer performing with a little tightness, Schaefer says. “You want every athlete to leave your table in their own comfort zone and you never want to bring their muscles to an unfamiliar place. The only way you can know this is to ask.”

It's a quiet time for athletes to tame the flow of emotion. “When an athlete is on the table—either before or mid-event—they often use that time to get their mental focus ready and visualize their competition,” Earley says. For that reason, follow an athlete’s lead in terms of chitchat. And if an athlete gives you the “silent treatment,” don’t take it personally. It’s how they prepare for an event. Of course, you want to keep quiet time to an effective minimum. “You don’t want the athlete dozing off on your table,” Earley says.

Be prepared to work without lotions or oils. “That’s something very different about pre- and mid-event sports massage,” Capps says. “Athletes don’t want anything slippery or scented on them when competing. Plus, these massages are often done over clothing—like sweat suits or tights. So lotions and oils are pointless.”

Never offer an athlete a beverage or snack unless authorized to do so. For safety reasons, elite athletes are often restricted from accepting anything ingestible from someone they don’t know. If you do offer an athlete bottled water, a cup of herbal tea or even a hermetically sealed protein bar—and you haven’t received permission to do so—you could be unknowingly jeopardizing your reputation as a professional sports massage therapist, Capps says. “Even when an athlete asks you for water, politely suggest that the athlete see the team coach or physician for whatever they need.”

Know when to call the doctor. If an athlete experiences anything new on the field, court, track or rink—from an unfamiliar tightness to serious pain—call the doctor. “Even if I’ve been working with an athlete for a while and feel comfortable addressing this person’s aches and pains, I still turn to the doctor if it’s anything new,” Schaefer says. “A sports massage therapist doesn’t have time to investigate during an event, and we can’t diagnose.”

Choose your words carefully once competition begins. You want to stay cool, calm and collected, Earley explains. “Let’s say it’s mid-event and an athlete comes to you with a knot in a muscle, and it’s definitely not an injury,” Earley explains. “Sometimes, without even thinking, you’ll say, ‘Oh my, that’s so tight. I need to get that out.’ Such a dramatic statement could throw off the athlete’s competitive mindset. So instead, I say nothing at all to the athlete about finding an adhesion or tight area, and I make a note to myself to address it after the competition. I don’t want the athlete to think about anything other than preparing for the competition. If it is something serious, say as little as possible and send the athlete over to the athletic trainer.”

Become a master of anatomy. “There’s barely time to think on game day. You have to get right to work,” Patterson says. “If you’re doing pre- or mid-golf tournament sports massages, you have to know which muscles golfers use and how they use them before you even start the day. Same goes for the next day, when maybe you’re working with a baseball team. You can switch between sports and do a great job—but only if you know your anatomy.”

There’s another distinction that sets pre- and mid-event massage therapy apart. It’s the reward, Schaefer says. “I always want to watch athletes I worked with win, but what I like most is the immediate gratification you get during the competition. An athlete comes to me and says, ‘Hey, this is really tight.’ I hit the spot, the athlete runs off and I know I helped someone meet their goal. Maybe they didn’t even plan to win. Maybe their goal was just to finish—and I helped.”

Working with Adolescent Athletes

Underage athletes require special precautions. You should always check with your state regulatory board to ensure you’re following the law regarding practicing with minors. “If you are going to work with underage athletes, make sure their coach or parent is present,” says Capps. “If that’s not possible, have the athlete set up a video chat with a parent so you can discuss your planned session with their child.” This may or may not be the law in your state, but it’s always a safer way to approach any type of massage therapy with a minor, Capps adds.


1. Bigouette JP, Owen EC, Greenleaf J, James SL, Strasser NL. "Injury Surveillance and evaluation of medical services utilized during the 2016 Track and Field Olympic Trials." Orthop J Sports Med. 2018;6(12):2325967118816300. Published 2018 Dec 26. 

2. Hemmings B, Smith M, Graydon J, Dyson R. "Effects of massage on physiological restoration, perceivedrecovery, and repeated sports performance." Br J Sports Med. 2000;34(2):109-115.

3. Ogai R, Yamane M, Matsumoto T, et al. "Effects of petrissage massage on fatigue and exercise performance following intensive cycle pedalling." Br J Sports Med. 2008;42:534–8.