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The fitness-related benefits of sports massage

Brad Walker discusses the benefits of sports massage

Massage is one of my all-time favourite injury rehabilitation techniques. I would even go as far as saying; it is the most effective form of injury rehabilitation therapy for speeding the healing process and preventing re-injury. Without it, the injured athlete very rarely recovers fully.

Massage is the earliest form of physical therapy on record. It was used and documented as early as 3000 years ago. Athletes have been using it for decades to improve their athletic performance. The 1924 Olympics brought sports massage into the spotlight when Paavo Nurmi, the "Flying Finn" won 5 gold medals in one day, and word spread that massage treatments were a part of his training regimen.

Sports massage is often used on injured athletes to speed healing and reduce downtime. It can also be used on healthy athletes after a vigorous workout to promote recovery and reduce the tension created by tight muscles. The increase in circulation, reduction in scar tissue and lesions, and relaxing of the muscles all help speed healing and improve recovery. Another benefit of quality massage is the prevention of injuries. The muscles become more supple and resilient with massage.

What is Massage?

Massage is the process of pressing, stroking, kneading, and rubbing the body to relax the muscles, improve circulation, relieve pain, stimulate the skin and hormone secretions, and improve proprioception. Massage's benefits reach below skin level. The muscles, tendons and ligaments are all affected by massage.

Massage should be performed by trained practitioners. When seeking a massage therapist, it is important to seek one with the proper credentials. You would not go to a neurosurgeon without the proper licensing, and, you should not trust your body to an unlicensed massage therapist. Certifications or licenses are important, but references are the key to finding a good masseuse.

Although some aspects of massage can be performed by an athlete upon themselves, it is difficult to relax completely while doing self-massage. Because of this, self-massage may only be effective on small areas of injury or for short-term relief of cramping or other muscle injury or illness.

There are different types of massage. Some examples include relaxation massage, remedial massage, reflexology, aromatherapy massage, oriental massage therapies (such as acupressure and Shiatsu) and sports massage. The basic premise for all types of massage is to manipulate the skin and soft tissue to promote relaxation, healing and improve tone.

Sports massage is used to improve athletic performance, prevent injuries and shorten recovery time from injuries. Sports massage may include aspects of the other versions of massage, but the focus is on athletic performance. Sports massage may be used before training or competition, during training, and post-training or competition. The timing of the massage depends on the goals of the treatment and the training schedule of the athlete. Sports massage usually focuses on the muscle groups, or individual muscles involved in the training or injury, although general relaxation massage may be used at the end of the day or training cycle.

Sports massage incorporates three main categories of pressure. All pressure is directed back toward the heart to help facilitate venous blood return and prevent putting too much pressure on the valves in the veins. Effleurage uses a series of firm stroking movements, usually with the full surface of the palm of the hand and is often used to start the massage. Petrissage is a kneading motion used to reach the deeper tissues to stretch muscle fibres, mobilize fluids, and to facilitate relaxation. Frictions involve using the pad of the thumb to move the skin over the underlying tissue. This is done to feel for any underlying abnormalities and to separate muscle fibres to break up scar tissue and lesions.

Who needs a Massage?

Massage may be indicated for athletes who have soft-tissue injuries. Athletes who have had a limb or joint immobilized due to an injury may also benefit from sports massage. Those returning to activity after an extended illness or other condition will find massage beneficial, as well.

Injured athletes are not the only ones who find benefit from massage. Healthy athletes may find massage helpful in preventing injuries and increasing performance. Massage for healthy individuals may be indicated to reduce recovery time after strenuous workouts. Its effect on flexibility and increasing blood flow to the muscles helps increase strength and resiliency in the muscles.

Athletes experiencing stress or who have sleeping difficulties should try massage as a therapy. Difficulty relaxing or resting between workouts or practices may lead to overuse, or stress, injuries or illness. Massage could be the answer for these athletes. Other conditions that may cause pain, stiffness or weakness in the muscles may benefit from massage as well.

The Benefits of Sports Massage

Sports massage has many benefits. The healthy athlete, as well as the injured athlete, may benefit from quality massage therapy. Listed are some of the many benefits of sports massage for athletes.

  • Increased suppleness and resiliency in the muscles, tendons and ligaments. This decreases the chances of injuries and improves the recovery from injuries.
  • Improved circulation. The blood flow is improved to the areas that are massaged. This increase in circulation helps provide the nutrients needed for recovery and building of new muscle tissue. This improved circulation also helps to remove waste products and toxins often produced in working or injured muscles.
  • Improved proprioception. Massage helps to improve the mind-muscle link and therefore improves fine and gross motor control. Knowing the position of the body, and its parts in relation to each other is an important aspect of any sports activity.
  • Inflammation and swelling reduction. Massage above and around an injured area may help reduce swelling and inflammation.
  • Increased joint mobility. Joints; or the muscles surrounding them, that are traumatized or overworked tend to tighten and become stiff. Massaging the muscles and soft tissues around a joint may help relax the joint and lead to overall relaxation.
  • Pain reduction. Massage helps relieve painful muscle spasms and cramping. It also helps increase blood flow to peripheral nerves that may be damaged from injury.
  • Injury treatment. Many injuries, especially soft-tissue injuries, will benefit from massage treatment. This is especially true during recovery. Massage helps to break up scar tissue and lesions that often cause stiffness and pain during recovery and helps athletes return to a normal range of motion quicker.
  • Improving hormone release and lymphatic system response. Some hormones are secreted in response to the stimulation of the muscles and their nerve cells. Massage stimulates these sites and may open the hormone receptors in these sites as well. Improving circulation helps overall lymphatic response as well.
  • Relaxation. The reduction of pain and stiffness helps bring about a state of relaxation. Massage has also been shown to release hormones responsible for relaxation and euphoria.

And do not forget to incorporate some gentle stretching exercises with your massage; as this will help to further enhance the benefits of massage.

Stretching is one of the most under-utilized techniques for improving athletic performance, preventing sports injury and properly rehabilitating sprain and strain injury. Do not make the mistake of thinking that something as simple as stretching will not be effective.

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • WALKER, B. (2007) The fitness-related benefits of sports massage. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 43/ June), p. 7-8

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • WALKER, B. (2007) The fitness-related benefits of sports massage [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Brad Walker is a prominent Australian sports trainer with more than 15 years' experience in the health and fitness industry. Brad is a Health Science graduate of the University of New England and has postgraduate accreditations in athletics, swimming and triathlon coaching. He also works with elite level and world champion athletes and lectures for Sports Medicine Australia on injury prevention. Brad can be contacted via his website at

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