Can a sports massage help you recover faster?

Learn how adding in a sports or deep tissue massage after you’ve been active might help to improve your recovery.

While it’s common to use targeted stretching after you’ve been active, having a sports or deep tissue massage post-exercise could also bring benefits.

From helping you to recover more quickly, to reducing muscle soreness and preventing injury, a massage could be just what you need. But there are various considerations to factor in – such as the importance of timing and what kind of massage you need.

We spoke to two therapists to learn more about how having a sports or deep tissue massage can help with your recovery after exercise.

 

Black female physiotherapist giving a leg massage to an older female clientCredit: Shutterstock/wavebreakmedia
Having a massage after exercise can help you to recover more quickly

Reduce muscle soreness

Exercise can sometimes create micro tears in your muscles, particularly if you’ve done a high-intensity activity such as a hard run or a weight-training session. And while this could leave you feeling a little tight and sore immediately afterwards, you can also experience a reaction later.

This is known to the pros as delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and it’s when massage can be particularly helpful.

Sports and deep tissue massage can alleviate DOMS as they help to reduce inflammation and increase blood flow to the affected areas,” says Yvonne Blake, a sports therapist, lecturer and chair of the Sports Massage Association. “These massage techniques help to break down adhesions and knots in the muscles, relieving tension and soreness.

“Regular sports or deep tissue massages can also help with injury prevention by improving muscle flexibility and range of motion,” she adds. “When specific muscle groups are focused on during a massage, this can help to release tension, ease tightness and restore muscle balance.”

Improve circulation

Blake adds that massages can increase both blood flow and lymphatic circulation, helping you to recover well after you’ve been active.

“This aids in the removal of metabolic waste products and promotes the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the muscles,” she explains. “In turn, this accelerated circulation helps to reduce muscle soreness, inflammation, and it can promote faster post-exercise recovery.”

Relaxation after exercise

Strenuous exercise can be demanding on you mentally as well as physically. So another useful benefit of massage is to reduce stress after a tough bout of exercise.

Sports and deep tissue massages promote relaxation by stimulating the release of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers and mood enhancers,” Blake explains. “They can also reduce anxiety, promote better sleep and help to improve overall wellbeing.”

Lizzie Read, a sports therapist at P3RFORM who works within elite sport and specialises in performance and rehabilitation, tells us how massage helps.

“Regular massage can help with post-workout recovery by helping us to feel more relaxed and less stiff,” she says. “This occurs via a biofeedback loop, a system within the body that regulates symptoms based upon feedback from external sources.

“For example, when targeted pressure is applied to a muscle, the nervous system sends a message to the brain which then sends a signal telling the muscle to relax. It can also be seen on MRI scans that the pressure applied during massage has the same effect on the brain as soft stroking, hence the calming effect a massage can have.”

Middle-aged man receiving a sports massage from a female physiotherapistCredit: Shutterstock/Cameron Prins
Sports massages will tend to work on a specific complaint

Deep tissue massage versus sports massage

Both deep tissue massage and sports massage use similar techniques.

Deep tissue massage is normally focused on helping you relax and unwind, though it can also be used to address tightness and stiffness in particular areas of the body, such as the shoulders, back or your leg muscles.

Sports massage will tend to work on a specific complaint. Read adds that sports massages are often used both for preparation for sporting events and to help with post-competition recovery.

Deep tissue massage: how it works

“This type of massage therapy primarily targets the deeper layers of the muscles and connective tissues,” Blake explains. “The therapist uses slow but firm pressure and deep strokes to release chronic muscle tension, adhesions and knots. They may also incorporate techniques like friction, stripping, and trigger point therapy to address specific areas of tightness and discomfort.”

What is friction, stripping and trigger point therapy?

Friction is a massage technique that’s used to increase circulation and release areas that are tight.

Stripping is a tissue massage technique where slow, deep, gliding pressure is used along the length of the affected muscles to release and elongate tightened areas.

Trigger point massage therapy works on sensitive sore spots (trigger points) that have become tight and contracted. A massage therapist or physio will press and hold the trigger points in your affected muscles. This helps to improve circulation and increase movement.

Sports massage: how it works

“This type of massage is specifically tailored to athletes and those engaged in sports or intense physical activities,” says Blake. “A combination of techniques are used as part of sports massage therapy. These include Swedish massage, deep tissue massage, stretching and joint mobilisation.”

Specific muscle groups will be worked on according to the requirements of the athlete’s sport. While sports massage can be helpful before and after an event, it can also be a good option as a regular maintenance tool, says Blake.

“In summary, sports massage aims to enhance an individual’s athletic performance, prevent injuries and aid in post-exercise recovery. It also helps to increase flexibility, improve range of motion, reduce muscle soreness and promote better circulation.”

Massage therapist carrying out a post-exercise sports massage on the calf musclesCredit: Shutterstock/Robert Przybysz
Try to schedule a massage within the first few hours after intense exercise

When is best for a post-exercise massage?

Timing is key. Blake says the general recommendation is to schedule a massage within the first few hours after strenuous exercise.

“During this period, the body is still in a heightened state of circulation, and the muscles are still warm. Getting a massage during this window can help flush out metabolic waste, reduce muscle soreness and promote faster recovery,” she explains.

Should you ever avoid massage?

There are several factors to consider when you’re thinking about having a sports or deep tissue massage. Read says the first one is what you have planned in the coming days. For example, if you’re planning to take part in a race, an intense massage might not be the way to go.

“Sports massage that is particularly deep and painful should be avoided close to an intense training session or competition,” says Read. “This is purely because if it leaves you feeling tender or bruised, it may affect your ability to perform at your best.”

Read adds that your sports therapist should be able to adapt the type and pressure of your massage to take account of your training goals and any competition plans.

Deep tissue massage before a workout?

A deep tissue massage really isn’t recommended as preparation for a full-on training session or workout.

“The vigorous manipulation of the muscles can actually temporarily weaken them, and this could affect performance,” says Blake. “It’s better to schedule a massage a day or two before a demanding event to allow your body to recover fully.”

This doesn’t mean a massage is totally off the cards, she adds. You can opt for a lighter massage or try gentle recovery techniques such as stretching or foam rolling (a manual therapy technique where a foam roller is used to help with relieving tightness) instead.

What if you have an acute niggle but haven’t seen a physio yet?

If you have what you think could be signs of an injury or inflammation in a particular area, Blake says it’s vital to have a chat with a physiotherapist before deciding on a massage.

Here’s why: “In some cases, massages may exacerbate an acute injury or inflammation, or they could actually delay the healing process. However, a skilled massage therapist will be able to adjust the techniques to avoid causing further harm.”

Which type of massage is right for me?

If you aren’t sure which type of massage will suit you best, have a chat with a qualified massage therapist so they can assess your needs and recommend the most appropriate option.

And if both types of massage are new to you, you can always try each one and see which is most beneficial. As Blake suggests: “Everyone’s response to massage therapy is individual so experimenting with different techniques can help you find what could work best for you.”

Julie Penfold

Written by Julie Penfold she/her

Updated:

Julie Penfold has been a specialist health and wellbeing journalist for more than 15 years and has been a finalist in three prestigious health and medical journalism awards during that time. She has written for a wide variety of health, medical, wellbeing and fitness magazines and websites. These have included Running, TechRadar, Outdoor Fitness, Be Healthy, Top Sante, Doctors.net.uk and The Guardian’s Social Care network.

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