A quick glance through popular health and fitness blogs, websites and magazines will indicate that massage is promoted as an excellent tool for recovery after a fatiguing athletic or recreational event. Many athletes who compete in fatiguing sports such as basketball or soccer swear by post-sport massage. A lot of fitness participants who perform in activities as diverse as Tough Mudder, Crossfit and HIIT training also report big benefits. But is massage for post event recovery actually that effective?
Massage therapists and personal trainers working in the fitness industry are in a great position to make recommendations to their clients on how to best approach their post-event or post-workout recovery to ensure that it is as quick and pain-free as possible. So let’s examine what should happen in recovery and then explore how massage can influence this.
The two key aspects of recovery that relate to the average client are restoring performance (eg running time, jumping height, power output on a rower, control in complex movements) and restoring comfort (eg no longer feeling stiff, tired or in pain). When performance and comfort are back to normal levels the client is considered to be recovered.
Those that advocate post-event massage for a faster recovery indicate that for best effect the massage should be received either immediately after the event or within 24 hours. The way that massage is touted as working is by relaxing muscle, improving circulation and restoring flexibility. Testimonials from massage clients indicate that many who receive a post-event massage feel better as a result.
Three time Olympian and current Master Trainer student, Libby Trickett shared that she would have massages twice a week when preparing for the Olympics, and during the Games she would have a massage at least once a day!
The effectiveness of post-event massage for recovery becomes less conclusive when it is investigated scientifically. It turns out that there is little scientific evidence to support the benefit of post-exercise massage to enhance recovery (Poppendieck et al 2016). Here is a snapshot of some of the published findings since 2012:
One study by Wilkins (2012) investigated the effects of receiving a massage immediately following a fatiguing running activity in hockey players. The investigators found that following a 10 minute massage there was a significant perception by the participants that their recovery had improved. However there was no measurable performance benefit for sprinting or jumping in the hockey players after the running bout. The researchers concluded that the benefits of massage after activity may be more psychological than physiological.
A 2012 study by Delextrat and co-workers compared the effects of post-event massage with cold-water immersion in basketballers immediately after playing basketball. The investigators used sprinting, jumping and the perception of recovery as their measures. In terms of physical performance, cold-water immersion resulted in improved performance in jumping while massage offered no benefit over and above simply resting. The study found that both massage and cold-water immersion improved the participant’s perception of recovery 24 hours after the activity. This is a psychological effect.
Kargarfard et al (2016) compared restoration of a key fatigue chemical, physical power, muscle soreness and perceived recovery in a group of 30 bodybuilders that received either massage or no massage after completing fatiguing exercise. One strength of this study was that measurements of the above variables were made immediately before and then immediately after fatiguing resistance exercise and then again after one, two and three days of recovery. The results of this study showed that those in the massage group did not demonstrate a recovery rate any better than those that received no massage at all.
A review of 22 published investigations into the effect of massage on recovery after exercise was carried out by Poppendieck et al in 2016. The review focused on the performance aspect of recovery. In other words how well a subject was able to perform on a physical test such as sprinting after massage compared to the subject’s ability following a period of rest only. The investigators found that the beneficial effects of massage on performance recovery were small and limited. The biggest effects were found after high intensity mixed training (such as HIIT). The effects were more pronounced in participants who were untrained.
The research currently indicates that recovery massage in the 24 hours after an event has no proven effect on performance. The most consistent effect that investigators have found to date is that post-event massage has a positive psychological effect. A 2014 study by Jay and co-workers where 22 participants exercised to fatigue performing stiff-legged deadlifts found that the participants who received massage were less sore for up to 48 hours after the exercise than those that didn’t receive massage. In other words we can confidently say that post-event recovery massage makes people feel better.
This is not to say massage doesn’t have it’s benefits outside of the twenty-four hour window post events. When training, regular massages are great to relieve tension, stress and help prevent injury.
“Massage kept my body going through my swimming careers,” says Libby Trickett, who adds “as I got older I became more reliant on regular soft tissue work to maintain my body and aid recovery.”
As professionals it is important to ensure that our clients are being advised and serviced using the best information available to us. Even though there is good evidence that massage can contribute to physical, psychological and emotional health as a part of an overall health management program, there is not sufficient evidence to recommend massage to promote physical and performance recovery in the 24 hours after fatiguing physical activity. At best we can confidently advise our clients that many athletes swear by massage after an event and that most people who receive a massage after fatiguing activity say they feel better for it.
For more information, our Remedial Massage Therapist course explores how athletes use massage in their training regime and the ways it can be used to better athletic performance.