Sports massages can help you move better, exercise longer, and recover faster, new science shows. Add the relaxation and de-stress elements, and they may just be your secret workout weapon.
You put a lot of work into staying in shape. Maybe you HIIT and run. Maybe you ﬂow, spin, and do as many reps as possible in boot camp. Whatever your mix, you’re likely missing one simple, science-backed way to maximise the beneﬁt you get out of every drop of sweat: the targeted TLC of a sports massage. “Athletes typically work sports massages into their regimen to reduce muscle soreness and help treat problem areas,” says Beth Mignano, a massage therapist who assisted the USA Track and Field teams at the 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games.
The idea is less pain, better training – a sound formula for anyone with a ﬁtness goal. “Plus, getting a regular massage – even once a week – is also a great way to develop another level of body awareness,” Beth says. “When you have greater body awareness, it can serve to guide your training choices. If you feel something outside the norm, you might be able to prevent an injury or improve performance by adjusting a drill, a technique, or your intensity.
But these aren’t run-of-the-mill spa treatments. Sports massages can consist of some heavy-duty manipulation techniques, including deep-tissue work and stretching, so they’re not always relaxing. What therapists are after is creating myofascial release to help you move better – myo refers to muscles and fascial refers to the continuous elastic sheet of connective tissue, or fascia, that covers them.
“Think of fascia like a piece of shrink wrap surrounding your muscles and providing structural support,” says Nina Cherie Franklin, an exercise scientist and massage therapist in Atlanta.
But things like sitting all day, repetitive motions, and even stress can cause it to get tight. “Loosening the fascia lets the therapist help the muscle return to its normal resting length, and open the muscle for movement,” says Mary Cody, a master massage therapist at Grae Therapy in New York City.
All that might sound a little intense, but the science behind massage can translate to serious gains in your workouts. Here’s why.
Boost your circulation
Oxygenated blood is your muscles’ power supply, and new research suggests that massage can help those fuel lines work better. In a study at the University of Illinois at Chicago, a single 30-minute lower body massage performed after a leg workout enhanced blood vessel dilation in exercisers for 48 hours. “Blood vessels that function properly are ﬂexible and have the ability to dilate or widen on demand when muscles and other tissues are in need of more oxygen and nutrient-rich blood during and after exercise,” says Cherie Franklin, the primary study author. Her ﬁndings suggest massage may stimulate those vessels to be at the top of their game so your muscles get max juice just when they need it.
Move more freely
Anyone who’s experienced tight hamstrings knows that some exercises can be difficult when your movement is restricted. That’s a sign that the fascia sheath is not allowing for a full range of motion in the hamstring, Mary explains. By releasing the tight or restricted areas, she says, you’ll improve your ﬂexibility and mobility. That, in turn, might allow you to run with less effort, lift weights with more control, or just exercise a little longer.
Rev up your endurance
There’s evidence that massage may even spark your muscle cells to go into overdrive. Researchers at McMaster University in Ontario saw an uptick in the signalling for mitochondria – the powerhouse of your cells – after just one massage.
How? “When the proteins involved in sensing the intercellular environment of muscles are altered – most likely from the pressure of a massage – this actually alters your gene expression, temporarily increasing the signal for new mitochondrial growth,” says study author Dr Mark Tarnopolsky.
That’s key since mitochondria help turn fuel into energy, and the more you have, the greater your endurance capacity. Getting regular massages could potentially change the capacity of your muscles, Dr Tarnopolsky says.
Feel less sore
Not only do post-workout massages pump blood more efficiently, but people who received them reported that their soreness level was reduced by nearly half, Cherie’s research found. After a tough workout, there’s an inﬂammatory response in the muscles you just used – your body speeds up blood ﬂow to patch micro-tears in those muscle ﬁbres – accompanied by oxidative stress. Too much stress, and your muscles can’t ﬁre as fast, long, or forcefully in the next day or two. Massage may dampen the stress effect by lessening the severity of the inﬂammatory response, she says, ultimately reducing the delayed onset muscle soreness you typically feel.
STYLING ALMA MELENDEZ/HALLEY RESOURCES