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STEP 5: MASSAGE

Everyone I know loves a good massage. Elite athletes are heavy users of massage therapy, especially at major games. I think that if given the choice, most would prefer to have their massage therapist with them at the Olympics over any other type of sport science or sports medicine practitioner. The research supporting the use of massage therapy is less than conclusive, but if we apply our inflammation theory to this discipline, an understanding of how massage can help you emerges quite clearly.

In the past it was thought that massage helped speed recovery from exercise by “flushing out” our muscle tissue and thereby speeding the removal of lactic acid after exercise. Some recent work by Michael Tschakovsky, an associate professor in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, has shown this is probably not the case. In fact, his research indicated that massage decreased blood flow in the forearm muscle following exercise, and also decreased the rate of lactic-acid removal.   

But there are aspects of massage therapy other than lactate removal. Further research has shown that massage therapy decreases levels of cortisol (the hormone associated with the stress response). And most people report feeling better and more recovered after a massage. Reduced muscle soreness and decreased inflammation may therefore be the biological mechanism that explains why people swear by massage therapy.

Brand new studies by Dr. Mark Tarnopolsky’s research group at McMaster University has confirmed these findings in humans. Graduate student Justin Crane found that, despite not having an effect on lactate or glycogen levels, massage decreased inflammatory markers and cellular stress.

It appears that massage therapy is not ideal for lactic acid removal, but is excellent for reducing tissue inflammation and physiological markers of stress. Plus it feels great!

Today's POWER-UP: How Athletes Use Massage Therapy

Pre-event

Involves light, rapid strokes that work as part of a warm-up to loosen muscles and activate the nervous system. Often done over clothing.

Post-event

Involves slower, more relaxing strokes, moving from distal toward the heart to encourage tissue drainage. May also help move fluid through the lymphatic system.

During training

Known more commonly as “sport massage,” this is deep-tissue massage that’s often quite uncomfortable. Helpful in the treatment of injuries and for decreasing muscle tension patterns.