The role of massage in athletics is growing. It is a very common occurrence to see sports massage therapists at events ranging from 5K fun runs to the Olympic games.
Sports massage involves the application of therapeutic massage and stretching to assist an athlete’s performance and recovery from activity. However, there are different types of sports massage based on when you give the massage in relation to the competition:
- Immediately before competition (Pre-Event)
- Between competitions on the same day (Inter-Event)
- Immediately after competition
- During the training program
When approaching these different types of sports massage, I prefer to focus on the purpose of the massage to direct me to the appropriate techniques. In this article, I will discuss the Pre-Event and Inter-Event sports massage.
The purpose of the pre-event sports massage is to prepare the athlete for high-intensity activity. The athlete is in the final stages of preparation and our job is to get the muscles loose without decreasing their psychological focus or causing significant physiological changes to their bodies. It is important to keep in mind that for this massage we are not looking to correct dysfunction or reduce stress, two primary goals of a typical massage therapy. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But it is true in this situation.
Besides the physiological benefits of massage, a pre-event sports massage can provide many unique psychological benefits to the athlete. First, they may gain the confidence that any perceived muscle issues are being corrected, leaving them to compete at their highest level. They may also believe that they are getting something that the other athletes are not receiving, and thus getting an edge-up on competition.
Further, many athletes make massage part of their pre-game ritual. When they come in for their pre-event massage, it helps them focus because it is part of their pre-event routine, similar to listening to a specific song before every competition. Athletes are commonly very habitual and superstitious, so when building a relationship with an athlete, I would advise to stay consistent with your pre-event massage routine. Don’t make any drastic changes do what you do with them, or you may have a negative impact on their mental focus.
Finally, during a pre-event massage it is definitely not the time to point out any problems you have noticed. For example, don’t tell an athlete about to compete “boy, your right hamstring is really tight today.” The last thing we should do is draw their attention to a specific body part!
A pre-event massage is performed the day of the competition, usually between 30 minutes to 2 hours before competition. Some massage therapists suggest 1-2 hours before, but in general, you want to give the athlete at least 30 minutes from the end of the massage to the start of their competition. The duration of the sports massage should be just 10-20 minutes in length.
The techniques I utilize in my pre-event massage are: Effleurage, compression/broadening, petrissage (kneading), ROM, Active Isolated Stretching, vibration, and tapotement (percussion). If you use oil/lotion on them before they compete, be sure they are able to wipe or wash off the excess, as it could interfere with their heat regulation through their skin. When working at the NCAA track championships, I would often perform the pre-event massage at the hotel and encourage the athletes to take a quick shower to wash off any excess oil.
All techniques should be performed at an up-tempo pace. Remember, we are not trying to soothe the athlete before competition. Keeping the pace of the effleurage and petrissage quicker than you would in a normal massage can even help to psych-up the athlete before competition.
When performing pre-event massage, the therapist should avoid using deep pressure on the athlete. Although some studies have found no change in performance following a pre-event massage (1), a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine (2) found a decrease in muscle force production of the knee extensors immediately following a lower limb massage. From personal experience, I have received feedback from track athletes that deep work makes their legs feel “dead” and unresponsive following deep tissue work.
Further, we do not want to perform relaxation techniques. At the time of the pre-event massage, the athletes are trying to get “hyped-up” for competition, and soothing Swedish massage techniques can inhibit the sympathetic nervous system and potentially harm their performance.
Finally, right before competition is not the time to achieve significant increases in flexibility, as the athlete is not used to the increased flexibility, and they may not have adequate strength in this new range of motion. Any work to improve range of motion should be saved for the therapeutic sports massage sessions you provide in the weeks leading up to competition, when the athlete will be able to properly adapt their neuromuscular control to these changes. Just remember, they’ve gotten this far with the flexibility they have, now is not the time to make big changes.
The inter-event massage is a massage performed between multiple competitions on the same day. Sports such as swimming, tennis, wrestling, track and field, softball, baseball, and volleyball often require athletes to compete in a tournament format, with a short rest between bouts. An inter-event massage has been shown to improve muscle recovery between repeated bouts of strenuous exercise (3)(4).
The main difference between a pre-event and inter-event massage is duration. While a pre-event massage is given for just 10-20 minutes, an inter-event massage should be even more brief (about 10 minutes). This type of sports massage should focus on just the main muscles stressed during the previous competition. So, be sure to talk with your athlete about the event they just finished to see what they felt during it and customize your work to help them feel they have recovered as best as they can before competing again.
1. Goodwin JE, Glaister M, Howatson G, Lockey RA, McInnes G. Effect of pre-performance lower-limb massage on thirty-meter sprint running. J Strength Cond Res 2007; 21 (4): 1028-31.
2. Hunter AM, Watt JM, Watt V, Galloway SD. Effect of lower limb massage on electromyography and force production of the knee extensors. Br J Sports Med 2006; 40 (2): 114-8.
3. Brooks CP, Woodruff LD, Wright LL, Donatelli R. The immediate effects of manual massage on power-grip performance after maximal exercise in healthy adults. J Altern Complement Med 2005; 11 (6): 1093-101.
4. Ogai R, Yamane M, Matsumoto T, Kosaka M. Effects of petrissage massage on fatigue and exercise performance following intensive cycle pedaling. Br J Sports Med 2008; 42 (10): 534-8.