What Is Sports Massage?

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Introduction

In sports and fitness, margins as fine as 1% can be the difference between success and failure. Consequently, athletes, fitness enthusiasts, and gym goers are constantly searching for ways to fine-tune their athletic performance levels. Since the early 1990s, sports massage has become widely accepted as an effective tool for improving athletic performance, post-performance recovery and injury rehabilitation in sports people.1 The following article takes a deep dive into the practice of sports massage, exploring what it is, how it’s done and most importantly, how it can help you achieve your athletic goals. 

What is Sports Massage?

Originally developed by Per Henrik Ling in 1812, sports massage is a form of physical therapy designed to help active individuals physically and psychologically prepare for, or recover from, physical activity.2,3 Using a range of different techniques, sports massage therapists manipulate the body’s soft tissue (ligaments, muscle, tendons and fascia), providing sports people with a large and varied range of physiological and psychological benefits. Unlike most standard massages, a sports massage is typically tailored to the needs of each individual client, meaning sports massage therapists will adopt different techniques and target different muscle groups based on the client's sport, training routine, athletic goals, and injury history.3  

When Do People Have a Sports Massage?

Whilst there aren’t any specific rules stating when a sports person should or should not have a sports massage, there are three main reasons why they would likely have an appointment with a massage therapist: before an event or training session, after an event or training session, or during the rehabilitation process of an injury.3

  • Before an event or training session - Sports people will often have a 15-20 minute pre-event massage one or two hours prior to an event or training session. Pre-event massages help athletes ensure they are physiologically and psychologically prepared for performance, helping increase oxygenated blood flow to key muscle groups, improving the range of movement available at key joints around the body, and helping optimise the athletes' psychological readiness, all of which can help enhance athletic performance and reduce the risk of injury occurrence. 
  • After an event or training session - Post-event massages are typically performed within 48 hours of a sporting performance or training session and can last up to 20 minutes. Post-event massages help the body recover after strenuous physical activity by increasing circulation, helping increase oxygenated blood flow to fatigued and damaged muscles, the removal of waste products such as lactic acid, and reducing muscle inflammation, stiffness and soreness. 
  • During the injury rehabilitation process - Sports massages are commonly used when a holistic approach to a sportsperson's injury rehabilitation is undertaken. As well as helping increase the delivery of oxygenated blood and key nutrients to the affected tissue, sports massage can help break down and remodel scar tissue surrounding the site of the injury, helping gradually increase the range of movement available at the injured area whilst also reducing muscle and joint soreness. 

What are the Benefits of a Sports Massage?

Due to various techniques used by sports massage therapists, sports massage can be an extremely versatile tool for sports people. Subsequently, the benefits of sports massage are extremely varied, ranging from improvements to an athlete’s general physical and psychological well-being to very sport-specific benefits. Below are some of the common sport-specific benefits a sports massage can provide. 

  • Enhanced athletic performance - Sports massage can help improve a sports person's athletic performance levels, helping increase the delivery of oxygenated blood and vital nutrients to key muscle groups, and improve the range of flexibility, range of motion and functionality of sport-specific muscle groups whilst also helping athletes optimise their pre-performance mental preparation.4 
  • Improved circulation - Sports massage helps promote muscle relaxation and reduced tightness. Consequently, the blood vessels surrounding the relaxed muscles vasodilate (become wider), allowing an increased supply of blood to reach soft tissue - increasing the delivery of oxygen and key nutrients whilst removing waste products like lactic acid. 
  • Injury prevention and rehabilitation - Sports massage can play a key role in reducing an athlete's risk of suffering from an injury during an event or training, helping improve circulation, flexibility and range of motion. During the recovery process of an injury, sports massages can help break down and remodel scar tissue, remove waste products from the bloodstream and ensure injured tissue receives adequate supplies of oxygenated blood and key nutrients.5
  • Reduced muscle tension and soreness - Sports massage helps target and remove adhesions, knots and spasms present within an athlete’s soft tissue, helping reduce soreness and stiffness. Furthermore, increased circulation helps ensure fatigued muscles receive an adequate supply of oxygenated blood and key nutrients, as well as ensuring waste products like lactic acid are removed from the bloodstream, reducing the risk of DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness).6  

Techniques Used in Sports Massage

Sports massage therapists will utilise a range of different massage/stroke techniques depending on their client's sport, workout routine, schedule and athletic goals. To ensure each massage is tailored directly to the needs of their clients, sports massage therapists will likely consult with their clients before the massage, allowing them to conduct a needs analysis of each client, and thus subsequently determining the different types of massage and techniques they will utilise. Below are some of the most commonly practised techniques in sports massage. 

Effleurage

Effleurage is a form of massage technique that can be used both before and after an event or training session. During an Effleurage massage, sports massage therapists use a flat hand (or fingers) to perform long gentle strokes across the client's skin. Effleurage can be used to achieve a range of physiological and psychological outcomes, including improved circulation, lymphatic drainage, muscle stimulation, mental relaxation and overall improvements to the individual's general well-being.

Petrissage

Petrissage is a form of deeper tissue massage in which the sports massage therapist kneads, wrings, squeezes and lifts the client's soft tissue rhythmically. Petrissage often involves the use of the palmar surface of the sports massage therapist's hands, enabling them to reach and manipulate deeper layers of muscle tissue. Petrissage helps break down knots and spasms present within the soft tissue, therefore helping reduce muscle soreness and stiffness whilst promoting improvements in flexibility and range of movement.

Friction

Friction massage is a technique most commonly used during the injury rehabilitation process of soft tissue injuries. Using their fingers, thumbs and palms, sports massage therapists apply pressure and friction to areas of concern, including injured or stiff areas of their client's body. Friction massages often consist of circular and transverse movements that aim to break down and remodel scar tissue and adhesions whilst helping an increased supply of blood reach affected areas, all of which can reduce soreness and stiffness, gradually improve the range of movement around the site of an injury, and help the progress of rehabilitation. 

Tapotement

Tapotement massages are often utilised to help athletes physiologically and psychologically prepare in the hours building up to an event or training session. During a tapotement massage, sports massage therapists apply a series of rapid but light strikes to the athlete’s body using the outside of their hand rhythmically. Tapotement massages typically target areas of high soft tissue density, rather than bony surfaces. Tapotement massage has proven a particularly effective tool for preparing a sportsperson for an upcoming event or training session, helping improve their circulation, and boost muscle function by stimulating nerve endings and invigorating the athlete’s mental state. 

Vibrations 

The vibrations sports massage technique can be utilised to help athletes prepare for, or recover from, a sporting event or training session. Using either their hands or a specialised tool, sports massage therapists use a series of controlled vibrations to manipulate the athlete’s deep soft tissue. Vibrations have a range of physiological and psychological benefits, helping stimulate nerve endings and muscle fibres, improving the circulation of oxygenated blood and key nutrients as well as having several therapeutic benefits including reduced tension and improved mental relaxation. 

FAQs

What is a sports massage? 

A sports massage is a form of physical therapy designed to help active individuals physically and psychologically prepare, or recover from, a sporting event or training session.

How does sports massage differ from regular massage?

Unlike traditional massages, sports massages are tailored directly to the needs of the client, meaning the techniques and targeted areas are based on the client’s athletic demands, goals and injury history. As well as therapeutic benefits, sports massages can help improve an athlete’s physical and psychological readiness for upcoming sporting events or training sessions.

Can Sports Massage Help Prevent Injuries?

Due to some of the benefits associated with a sports massage, for example, improved post-performance recovery, reduced muscle fatigue and improved circulation, having a sports massage regularly can help reduce the risk of suffering an injury during an event or training session.

What Techniques are Used in Sports Massage?

Whilst a range of techniques can be used during a sports massage, the most commonly applied techniques by sports massage therapists include effleurage, petriage, friction, tapotement and vibrations. 

How Often Should I Receive Sports Massage?

The frequency with which an individual receives a sports massage depends on their health, injury status, and performance levels. For healthy recreational athletes, it is recommended to have a sports massage once a month to maintain the benefits associated with sports massages. However, for those performing at an elite level or those who suffer from a recurring injury or pain, massages may be much more frequent, with some athletes having weekly sports massages.

Summary

Whilst simply considered a luxury indulgence to some, sports massage can be an extremely effective and versatile tool for those looking to optimise their athletic performance, post-performance recovery and injury rehabilitation. Unlike most standard massages, sports massages are tailored directly to the needs of each individual client, taking into account their athletic demands, goals and injury history. Sports massage can provide sports people with a range of physical and psychological benefits including improved circulation, lymphatic drainage, flexibility, range of movement and mental relaxation, making it an important factor for those looking to strive for higher levels of athletic performance.

References

  1. Sports Therapy UK [Internet]. What is sports massage? Available from: https://www.sportstherapyuk.com/about-sports-massage/what-is-sports-massage
  2. Vickers A, Zollman C, Reinish JT. Massage therapies. West J Med [Internet]. 2001 Sep [cited 2024 Feb 1];175(3):202–4. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1071543/
  3. Brummitt J. The role of massage in sports performance and rehabilitation: current evidence and future direction. North American Journal of Sports Physical Therapy : NAJSPT [Internet]. 2008 Feb [cited 2024 Feb 1];3(1):7. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2953308/
  4. Dakić M, Toskić L, Ilić V, Đurić S, Dopsaj M, Šimenko J. The effects of massage therapy on sport and exercise performance: a systematic review. Sports [Internet]. 2023 Jun [cited 2024 Feb 5];11(6):110. Available from: https://www.mdpi.com/2075-4663/11/6/110
  5. Davis HL, Alabed S, Chico TJA. Effect of sports massage on performance and recovery: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ Open Sport Exerc Med [Internet]. 2020 May 7 [cited 2024 Feb 5];6(1):e000614. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7228568/
  6. Guo J, Li L, Gong Y, Zhu R, Xu J, Zou J, et al. Massage alleviates delayed onset muscle soreness after strenuous exercise: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Frontiers in Physiology [Internet]. 2017 [cited 2024 Feb 5];8. Available from: https://www.frontiersin.org/journals/physiology/articles/10.3389/fphys.2017.00747

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This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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George Evans

MSc, Sport Science, University of Lincoln

George is a freelance writer with three years of writing experience and first class honours in Sport Science (BSc).

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