What is Sports Massage?

Sports massage used to be the preserve of professional athletes, but these days we understand that sports and remedial massage is something that is applicable and accessible to anyone and everyone.

You bang your elbow on the door, you’ve woken up with a cricked neck, what do you do? 

Your automatic reaction to an injury is to hold that area, with the aim to relieve the pain that you feel there. This is the very basic beginning of massage – and it hasn’t been around for thousands of years for no reason. Touch makes us feel better, due to the release of oxytocin and endorphins, but also psychologically making us feel more connected and reducing levels of stress. 

Massage has had a positive effect on every medical condition we’ve looked at
— Tiffany Field, PhD. Director of Touch Research Institute, University of Miami

Sports massage began with the working with athletes to help them achieve their peak performance and to remain injury free as part of their training programmes, but perhaps it is most well known in its use to support the healing of injuries. However, over the course of its existence sports & remedial massage, as it is also known) has become more open to anyone who is in need of remedial or soft tissue work, regardless of age, fitness levels or gender.

Sports massage doesn't fit into one box – there are many variables including: training and qualification, which country the practitioner is practicing in & also who the client is. So it can become quite hard to define what it is. But what is well accepted are some of the known benefits of sports massage:

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  • Reduced muscle soreness and pain
  • Improved range of motion and flexibility
  • Improve muscle tone
  • Relief of tension
  • Reduced stress
  • Reduced chance of injury
  • Improved circulation
  • Prepare body for competition
  • Aid in recovery post event 

There are a variety of techniques used during a sports massage including effleurage, petrissage, tapotement, vibration, compression, deep strokes & friction. Building on from these, there are more advanced techniques which can be used (listed below), to deliver a deep form of soft tissue work. It aims to stretch tight muscles, engage inactive muscles & improve soft tissue condition. 

Some of the advanced techniques which your practitioner may use: 

  • Deep Tissue Work 
  • Myofascial Release 
  • Trigger Point Therapy 
  • Friction 
  • Transverse & Longitudinal Soft Tissue Release 
  • Muscle Energy Techniques 
  • Joint Articulation 
  • Joint Traction 
  • Positional Release 
  • Connective Tissue Manipulation 
  • Active and Passive Stretching 
  • & many more 

Can anyone have a Sports Massage ? 

The short answer is yes! Sports Massage isn't just for sports people and athletes! 

Massage can work holistically with the whole body, and has been seen to have an effect not just on the body physically (i.e with the muscles, & circulation) but also help to ease tension and help relieve stress neurologically (more on this below!). 

The therapist can use a host of techniques in order to treat the muscle imbalances that we can all suffer from - neck pain from sitting at a desk for ~ 8 hours a day, lower back pain from picking up children to the strained muscle suffered on the Sunday run. 

Sports & Remedial Massage can be used during rehab from injury and surgeries, complementing physiotherapy, osteopathy or chiropractic and rehabilitative therapies. 

It can also be used as a health benefit for office workers, with Journals having shown "Therapeutic massage can decrease pain, tenderness, and improve range of motion for sub-acute and chronic neck pain." Ottawa Panel Evidence-based clinical practice guidelines on Therapeutic Massage for neck pain. (2012). J Bodyw Mov Ther, 16(3), 300-325. 

Sports massage therapists aim to deliver effective treatments to reduce pain and discomfort whilst also looking to the deeper of picture of what may be the cause. In order to do this they perform appropriate assessments and evaluations, whilst keeping in mind some common injuries. 

For sports people and athletes, recent clinical studies into the use and effect of massage therapy show that massage can have an effect in reducing the effects of Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS), aiding recovery after exercise, is effective in treating range of musculoskeletal pain and also a reduction in anxiety. Treatments can be integrated into training programmes to aid in recovery post training, to help prepare your body for competition and to help with reducing the instances of injury. However, athletes new to massage shouldn't have their first session just before a competition, it is advised that they wait until afterwards to start treatments. 

How does it work? (AKA: the 'Sciencey' bit) 

Research studies are being undertaken into the effects of massage, but due to inconsistencies in treatments - different therapists, different techniques and different clients - the results have been varied and inconclusive. 

Perhaps, for the time being, the best way to determine the benefits of massage is to gauge the response of the athletes. 

Massage is believed to have an effect both mechanically and neurologically on the body. 

Mechanically by working with the soft tissues of the body, helping to relax, lengthen and stretch within them to help improve their range of motion and consequently greater flexibility and ease of movement. 

Neurologically; massage works directly and indirectly with the parasympathetic and sympathetic pathways of the nervous system. Massage can relax and increase the production of endorphins - the bodies' natural pain killers & 'feel good' hormone. 

Some of the effects of massage on the bodies' systems are listed below: 

Muscular System: Releasing tension, stiffness, decreasing muscle spasms & realigning scar tissue and adhesions, helping to restore optimal function. 

Skeletal System: By releasing the tension and restriction in the soft tissue, we can release the tension and stress on joints, by increasing the mobility and flexibility. 

Cardiovascular System: Improving blood circulation through a congested area can lead to an increase in delivery of oxygen and nutrients, whilst removing toxins. 

Nervous System: Massage can either relax or stimulate the sensory receptors, depending on which techniques are used. Also reducing pain through the release of endorphins. 

Lymphatic System: Improving the flow through the soft tissue by the release of tension, helps to remove toxins.