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How Massage Therapy is used in Sports

Have you ever wondered how athletes like Tom Brady and Michael Jordan got the stuffing beaten out of them during a game and then came back for the next, just as strong as before? Or how, for example, New York Mets shortstop Jose Reyes can go on the disabled list with a hamstring pull, then come back at full strength in only a few weeks, when it would put you out of commission for a couple of months or more? No, contrary to what you might be thinking, it’s not an injection of an illegal substance. It’s massage therapy. Here are just a few examples of how massage is used in sports, for athletes of all types – from the most highly paid and celebrated professional to the weekend warrior down the block.

1. Massage speeds recovery from injuries

Imagine that the playoffs are within your favorite team’s grasp. But here comes the starting center, limping off the court. She landed wrong on that last rebound and gave her gastrocnemius a good hard tug. The trainer puts her on ice, and when the swelling goes down (usually within 48 hours), the team’s massage therapist gets the call. Performing Swedish massage (one of the most gentle techniques) on the injured calf muscle speeds healing by bringing nutrient-rich arterial blood to the area and helping the circulatory system remove toxins and wastes. But massage treatment doesn’t stop there. In the body’s natural healing process, surrounding muscles form a tight “splint” to help keep the injury immobilized. But sometimes these muscles get confused and stay tight after the original injury has healed. Deep-tissue massage on these muscles, used in conjunction with heat, can help them get and stay loose.

Also, all injuries (and your body treats surgery like an injury as well) cause scar tissue. Untreated scar tissue can result in mobility-limiting adhesions and trigger points. Adhesions occur when scar tissue sticks to the muscle fibers and prevents a muscle from stretching to its full range of motion. Trigger points develop when the myofascia (the thin membrane that surrounds and contains our muscles, tendons and ligaments) becomes twisted or attached to soft tissue. This results in a knotted area that can, when pressed, cause extreme pain and even refer pain to other areas of the body. A type of medical massage technique called cross-fiber friction (rubbing across the muscle fibers) is used to free up these “stuck” areas and break up trigger points. The cross-fiber friction massage technique also encourages the healing body to make a stronger and more flexible repair.

2. Massage improves athletic performance

A pre-event massage, often using standard Swedish massage strokes like effleurage (a gliding motion that increases general circulation) and petrissage (kneading), supplements a normal warm-up by increasing blood flow. This pumps a maximum amount of nutrients and oxygen into your muscles, so you’re prepped for improved performance. An overall increase in circulation also means better circulation to the brain. So you’re better prepared mentally and physically for competition.

3. Massage improves overall flexibility and range of motion

Some of the most stubborn sports injuries involve tendons and ligaments, the thick bands of fibers that connect muscles and bones. Since this type of tissue doesn’t have a strong natural blood supply, like muscles do, they can take a long time to heal. This is another way that massage is used in sports – it helps keep those connective tissues supple, which not only improves circulation, but also can allow the athlete a better range of motion. Imagine the great tennis serve or gorgeous golf swing you would have with better range of motion!

4. Massage helps recovery after exercise or athletic performance

Paula Radcliffe, the world-record holding British marathon runner, puts her body through a punishing training regimen. She credits regular massage for helping her muscle cells regenerate faster, and for improving circulation to her tendons and ligaments. This helps her entire body recover faster after heavy training and competition. Also, studies have shown that after a massage, the body secretes higher levels of endorphins and serotonin, substances that are natural pain relievers. These chemicals can also knock down the severity of delayed onset muscle soreness that often happens after a rigorous athletic event like a marathon. Or that 10K you did last weekend.

5. Massage can help prevent athletic injuries

A good massage therapist can determine if you’re training and moving correctly, or if your body is out of balance. For example, if one leg aches more or is tighter than the other, it could create imbalances throughout the body. Correcting the imbalance (which could have many causes) can prevent injury. If you’re a runner, even something as simple as a bunion on your toe could cause you to change your gait, which could then create pain in your knee, your hip, and then your back. A blister on New York Yankees pitcher Roger Clemens’ foot once caused an injury to his elbow, because he (unconsciously) changed his whole pitch delivery because of the pain in his foot. If you participate in sports that often overemphasize one side of your body (for example, tennis, golf, or baseball) you could become injured if you don’t train the other side of your body, too. A massage therapist can catch these kinds of problems before they result in the dreaded words that no athlete or fan wants to hear: season-ending surgery.

Massage therapy is also used to monitor and treat overuse injuries. A good massage can knock down the inflammation in those areas before it can put you on the disabled list.

6. Massage can help prevent illness

While exercise has been touted as something that helps prevent illness, the super-human levels of exercise that professional and amateur athletes get – especially marathon runners and basketball players – can tax their ability to fight infection. Studies have shown that long distance runners are particularly susceptible to colds and flu. A type of massage technique called lymphatic massage uses very light pressure on the muscles and a soft, pumping of the tissues in the direction of the lymphatic glands (which are concentrated mainly behind your knees, in your groin and your armpits, and function as a kind of border patrol to catch incoming viruses and bacteria.) This action increases lymph flow, which helps the body kill and remove toxins, and helps to strengthen your immune system. You’ve been training so hard for that marathon – why take a chance on missing it because of that bug that’s been going around? A good massage can keep you in the running.

How massage is used in sports depends on the desired goal and the individual athlete. Many pros, like Paula Radcliffe and Michael Jordan, have depended on massage (sometimes combined with other therapies) to keep them in tune and out of trouble. But you don’t have to be Tiger Woods to let massage therapy help you get back in the game and stay there.