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 (Post-Event)
- During the training program (Therapeutic)
Again, 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.
The purpose of the post-event sports massage is to help the athlete to recover from their high-intensity exercise. They have just finished a competition, or a hard training session. At this time, we have a few key goals as massage therapists:
1) Improve the Circulation:
We can assist the athlete by improving the venous return and lymphatic circulation. A research study found that myofascial massage assisted in the recovery of diastolic blood pressure after high-intensity exercise to pre-exercise levels (1).
2) Reduce Muscle Tension
Muscles used in high-intensity activity have a tendency to remain at a higher level of tonus immediately after activity. Massage and stretching can help to restore normal resting tonus. A recent study (2) found that massage reduced EMG amplitude and vigor (muscle activity) when applied as a passive recovery technique immediately after exercise.
3) Calm the Athlete
The work we do has both strong physiological and psychological benefits. Massage can stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, improving the immune system (3). But just as important, it has been shown to improve the perceived fatigue level of the athlete. By helping the athlete to feel more recovered, they were able to generate more power in repeated exercise tests (4).
The post-event massage is typically given anywhere from 30 minutes up to 24 hours after competition or activity. When working with runners after a marathon, I will focus on post-event techniques even up to 48 hours after their race, because of the damage they are doing to their muscles. This massage should be brief (30 minutes) and utilize techniques to enhance circulation and calm muscles after activity. Techniques can include effleurage (stroking), petrissage (kneading), broadening compression, joint mobilizations, and assisted stretching.
With post-event massage, effleurage (stroking) and petrissage (kneading) are the key techniques, and as long as they have not incurred significant muscle damage and soreness, you can employ deep pressure. Be sure to start with light pressure and move do deeper pressure as you check in with your athlete. When performing effleurage, also make sure to work distal to proximal, to enhance venous return. I start with light effleurage with the palms of my hands and gradually increase the pressure by changing to loose fist or forearm effleurage.
The same thing goes for the petrissage and broadening compression. Start light and be very mindful of your pressure, as they often cannot handle deep pressure at the beginning (especially on the quadriceps in sports involving running or cycling). Check in with them often and look for the non-verbal signals of holding their breath or clenching their fists.
Any deep tissue work must be avoided at this time. It doesn’t matter how much you want to work out a knot in their thigh. Their muscles have experienced micro-trauma to the contractile proteins. Keep that deep transverse friction on hold for now (and schedule them for a therapeutic massage in a few days!). Just keep with the effleurage and petrissage, and you will feel the lumps smooth out in a few mintues.
I spend the final 10 minutes of a 30 minute post-event routine on stretching to the primary muscles used in the sport. I use a combination of static stretching, Muscle Energy Techniques (MET) and Active Isolated Stretching (AIS), depending on how the client is feeling from the competition. This stretching is key to restore the muscles to their normal resting lengths after strenuous activity.
These principles have helped me improve the recovery of marathon runners, NCAA track athletes, as well as cyclists at a touring event riding 100 miles per day for four straight days. I often see marathon runners limping into my clinic like Frankenstein and walking out with a big grin, feeling as if they hadn’t just run 26.2 miles. Post-event massage can be a very powerful tool to an athlete!
- Perform post-event massage 30 minutes to 24 hours after the event
- Limit the massage to 30 minutes on the muscles used in the sports activity (don’t over-do it)
- Focus on effleurage, petrissage and broadening compression – Don’t dig in with friction!
- Check-in with the client about pressure often
- Utilize stretching (static, MET, AIS) to restore the muscles to their normal resting lengths
1. Arroyo-Morales M, Olea N, Martinez M, Moreno-Lorenzo C, Díaz-Rodríguez L, Hidalgo-Lozano A. Effects of myofascial release after high-intensity exercise: a randomized clinical trial. J Manipulative Physiol Ther 2008; 31 (3): 217-23.
2. 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): 1223-9.
3. Arroyo-Morales M, Olea N, Ruíz C, del Castilo Jde D, Martínez M, Lorenzo C, Díaz-Rodríguez L. Massage after exercise–responses of immunologic and endocrine markers: a randomized single-blind placebo-controlled study. J Strength Cond Res 2009; 23 (2): 638-44.
4. Ogai R, Yamane M, Matsumoto T, Kosaka M. Effects of petrissage massage on fatigue and exercise performance following intensive cycle pedalling. Br J Sports Med 2008; 42 (10): 534-8.