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by Thomas Kurz
Information on this Web page is for educational use only, and is not intended as medical advice.
Every attempt has been made for accuracy, but none is guaranteed. If you have any serious health concerns, you should always check with your health care practitioner before treating yourself or others.
Always consult a physician before beginning or changing any fitness program.
Few athletes integrate massage in their whole training program. That is a pity because a good massage therapist can improve performance, speed up recovery, and save an athlete a lot of grief and money by preventing injuries and helping healing.
A massage therapist can detect such early signs of muscle dysfunction as tenderness, stiffness, or uneven muscle tonus before even the athlete is aware of them. In a well-run training program, the massage therapist passes that information to the coach and the team’s physician. Then, the exercises and training loads can be changed to prevent minor dysfunctions from becoming injuries.
When an athlete trains alone, acting as his or her own coach, the massage therapist’s feedback is all the more valuable.
A good sports massage or therapeutic massage tends to be deep. It takes deep massage to penetrate the whole bulk of muscles, to feel out spots of abnormal muscle tissue that are stringy, hard, and painful, and to make that tissue relaxed, soft, and pain-free again.
A few sessions of deep massage can bring considerable relief from arthritis, frozen shoulder (adhesive capsulitis), tension headaches, and more (Hertling and Kessler 2012).
Hertling and Kessler (2012) quote a study of the effects of massage on a seriously injured muscle. Two groups of animals had a muscle crushed, and then one group had this muscle massaged and the other group was left to heal on its own. Muscles that were massaged healed better, looked normal, were soft (not stringy), had no abnormal thickening of connective tissue, and showed no signs of internal bleeding. Muscles of the untreated animals had all the negative effects of injury.
Russian sports massage utilizes the following techniques in this order (Pogosyan and Biryukov 2003; Vasichkin 2001): stroking, squeezing, kneading, shaking, rubbing, active movements (by the athlete), passive movements (by therapist’s force), movements against the therapist’s resistance, hitting, and shaking up. Rubbing and movements are used mainly to treat joints, ligaments, and tendons. Stroking is done between all intense techniques.
Russian therapeutic or medical massage uses four principal techniques: stroking, rubbing, kneading, and vibrating, in that order. So, stroking prepares tissues for rubbing, rubbing for kneading, and vibrating ends the session.
Techniques of both kinds of massage are performed in the same way, only the selection and order differ. Application of therapeutic massage depends on the illness or injury, while application of sports massage depends on the athlete’s training load, duration of rest, peculiarity of the athlete’s sport, and mental state of the athlete (prestart state).
All principal massage techniques are selected according to their influence on the nervous system and on the body’s structures (Pogosyan and Biryukov 2003; Vasichkin 2001). Squeezing and hitting stimulate the nervous system while stroking, shaking, and vibrating calm it down. Kneading and rubbing can stimulate or calm down depending on the pace, force, and duration of application. Fast, deep, and brief kneading activates neuromuscular apparatus and stimulates the nervous system. Slow, superficial, and prolonged kneading calms down the nervous system and so muscles relax. So, such a technique can be used for a different purpose at different times—to stimulate prior to a workout or a start, or to calm down as a means of aiding recovery.
The selection of techniques considers their influence on the body’s structures (Pogosyan and Biryukov 2003):
- For the skin and fat tissue under the skin (subcutaneous adipose tissue)—stroking, squeezing, rubbing, and hitting.
- For the muscles—squeezing, kneading, hitting, shaking, and movements. Kneading of major muscles is combined with shaking and, for muscles of the arm or thigh, with rolling. Hitting is done after muscles are well prepared by other techniques. Otherwise techniques of hitting can cause pain, microtrauma to muscle fibers, microbleeding, and spasms of small blood vessels.
- When massaging a joint, first stroking and rubbing is done, then kneading of the muscles above and below the joint, then rubbing the joint capsule and ligaments, and then movements.
- To influence the peripheral nervous system, stroking and vibration may be used. Nerves and painful spots are massaged toward the end of the session, using vibration. The session ends with stroking and in the case of limbs with shaking up. Not all techniques have to be applied in a single session.
There are following kinds of sports massage: workout massage, preparatory massage, and restorative massage.
Workout massage, whole body or local, speeds up the process of recovery after a workout. It is done 1.5–2 hours after the end of the workout. If a workout ends late in the evening, it may be followed by a short session of local massage or a restorative massage lasting no more than 20 minutes, saving the whole body massage for the next morning (Geselevich 1976).
Preparatory massage is done immediately before an effort. It is used to relax the body, to warm up and prevent cooling down of the body, and to regulate the prestart emotions. A massage to regulate emotions calms down the athlete in the case of prestart anxiety or energizes him or her in the case of prestart apathy.
Restorative massage is done during breaks between heats (running or swimming), bouts or matches (wrestling, boxing), before a change of apparatus in gymnastics, and after competitions or workouts to speed up recovery. (Seems the same as a workout massage but it differs in specifics.)
All these kinds of sports massage are described in more detail in the book Science of Sports Training: How to Plan and Control Training for Peak Performance.
The American Massage Therapy Association has information on sports massage and on finding a certified therapist at amtamassage.org/findamassage/index.html.
Geselevich, V. A. 1976. Meditsinskiy spravochnik trenera. Moscow: Fizkultura i Sport.
Hertling, D., and R. M. Kessler. 2012. Management of Common Musculoskeletal Disorders: Physical Therapy Principles and Methods. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
Kurz, T. 2001. Science of Sports Training: How to Plan and Control Training for Peak Performance. Island Pond, VT: Stadion Publishing Co., Inc.
Pogosyan, M. M., and A. A. Biryukov. 2003. Klassifikaciya priemov klassicheskogo massazha. Teoriya i Praktika Fizicheskoy Kultury no. 9, pp. 35–36.
Vasichkin, V. I. 2001. Bolshoy Spravochnik po Massazhu. Moscow: EKSMO-PRESS.