Soft-tissue treatment is an important part of the recovery process for many weightlifters. Massage is probably the most favored method. Massage is used to speed recovery following heavy single workouts, competitions, or during high-intensity cycles. Massage also plays a part in the prevention of injury, especially those that might arise due to overuse and overload. And finally, we can’t forget the importance of massage in the injury rehabilitation process. Massage – in one form or another – has been used by a variety of cultures globally for centuries. And, in that long history, it has developed quite the reputation for treating… well, just about everything. Many of the purported benefits of massage, frankly, lack scientific evidence. Still, there are many more that do have a significant amount of research to back them up. One of the most firmly upheld positive effects of massage is of particular interest to athletes and exercisers: improved muscle recovery.
But, how does massage help with muscle recovery? What’s really going on?
Why Recovery Matters
To really understand how massage helps muscle recovery, it’s important to first understand what exercise does to your muscles and why recovery matters.
When you exercise, especially in a new or challenging way, your muscles undergo damage in the form of microscopic tears to the fibers that make them up. In response, your brain begins a complex chain of events that rebuild and improve the affected muscles. Rather than just fixing the damage, your body wants to make sure that your muscles are strong enough to be able to handle that same activity in the future without sustaining damage. And this is how exercise makes us stronger and improves our athletic performance. Recovery, then, is vital your fitness progress.
How Massage Helps
While much of that muscle recovery process happens without our knowledge, there are a few physical effects of which we tend to be very aware. Namely, we’re talking about that stiff, throbbing pain called Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) that sets in within 24 to 48 hours after a difficult workout. It’s been known for a long time that massage can relieve certain types of pain, allow the exact mechanism for this relief has been pretty controversial. In fact, many experts have suggested that the reduction in pain is really just a response to feeling relaxed.
Benefit #1: Flexibility
Massage therapy can improve flexibility. For a lifter to achieve optimal performance, he or she must exhibit a high degree of flexibility. Since massage therapy stretches the muscle fibers, flexibility is promoted and maintained. High volume or intensity training cycles and competition usually lead to increased muscle tension. The effects here may include disturbances of collagen scar tissue and development of various adhesions where the muscle, fascia, and other tissues stubbornly stick together. If this happens you will experience a reduction in overall flexibility and an increased chance of injury.
Benefit #2: Circulation
Massage therapy improves circulation, and with better circulation the lifter can breathe easier and move more smoothly. Heavy training cycles causes microscopic damage (micro-trauma) to the muscle and fascial tissue. That damage must be repaired via increased blood flow (i.e., nourishment). Since massage helps the blood flow, the circulation of the lifter will be improved and this will enhance his or her performance levels. This will have a great impact on lymphatic and blood circulation, influencing waste removal from these areas, as well as food and oxygen supply to these areas. All of this leads to faster recovery and an earlier return to effective training.
Benefit #3: Pain Reduction
Massage alleviates muscular pain, whether caused by overwork or injury. If an athlete is in pain, he or she will not be able to approach maximum poundage. Chronic or acute pain unavoidably psyches out the lifter. The less pain that is felt, the better the lifter will perform. Pain is a signal that something is wrong, so that will have to be dealt with. Massage will often be part of the required therapy.
Benefit #4: Sleep Improvement
As we already know, sleep is another big part of the recovery process. Massage therapy promotes better sleep patterns. Massage can actually improve the quantity and quality of sleep. By getting more and deeper sleep, the athlete will be better able to perform at his or her best. The lifter who goes to bed in a high-tension state will have difficulty getting to sleep and may often wake during the night or wake too early. All of this compromises recovery. Massage will reduce some of that tension and promote deeper and longer sleep. Volume and intensity are not just important in your training. They apply to sleep parameters as well.
Benefit #5: Decreased Tension
Massage therapy increases muscle relaxation levels. Many lifters exhibit that hard driving type-A personality where relaxing is difficult. In those situations stress can get the better of the lifter. With regular massage, such a lifter can learn to relax body and mind and perhaps improve his performances.