Why regular massage can improve your performance, reduce recovery time and boost your enjoyment of both your training and race days!
We all know that massage makes you feel good, but few of us really understand why or realise the full benefits it has on our health and wellbeing.
We tend to consider a massage as something of a luxury (to pamper ourselves with) but what appears on the face of it to be just a bit of pressing and kneading of the skin, is actually a therapeutic process which brings about many positive changes in the body that can be helpful in relaxing, recovering and feeling better.
It’s a bold claim, but there is research to show that massage can not only promote relaxation, but can also help relieve pain, promote healing and improve performance – the latter might go some way to explaining why sports massage is so popular with athletes and people serious about their sport.
Let’s look a bit more in-depth at the changes that take place within the body during a massage and how they can have a positive effect on the way we feel…
In the nervous system, there are two mechanisms which are triggered by massage:-
Light to moderate touch / pressure activates the cutaneous (skin) receptors which relay messages quickly to the spinal cord. These messages are believed to block the slower ‘danger messages’ (which ultimately lead to you experience pain) at the spinal cord.
Firmer more vigorous massage, which may cause some discomfort, (rather than a definite ‘ouch’pain!) has a different effect on the pain system. This slightly unpleasant sensation appears to stimulate nerve cells within the brain, which in turn initiate activity in the parts of the brain that are responsible for releasing the natural opiates (pain relieving chemicals or endorphins). These chemicals are thought to affect the part of the body that is transmitting the ‘danger signal’ although this does vary from person to person as the pain system is affected by a number of different factors such as stress levels, length of time pain has been present and hormones.
Promoting Healing and Improving Muscle Performance
Massage increases blood flow and thereby oxygen to the tissues by dilating (opening/widening) the more superficial blood vessels. This has a number of positive effects including relaxing the muscles and aiding the healing process to injured structures. Tissue requires a good blood and oxygen supply to remove the damaged cells from the injured tissue and enhances the flow of the chemicals that stimulate new tissue growth and aid repair.
Swelling is a natural part of the healing process and will occur when tissue is damaged. However, persistent swelling can be a problem because is can cause on-going pain with the physical pressure it exerts on the structures around it, reducing blood flow and affecting the local muscle’s performance. Massage improves the performance of the lymphatic (drainage) system, which is responsible for removing excessive fluid from the tissues and therefore reducing swelling. Increased blood flow can also reduce muscle spasm, increase the force of the muscles contraction and enhance the muscles ability to perform for longer periods.
Massage is also believed to breakdown adhesions (scar tissue) in the muscle fibres although exactly what happens within the tissue is not fully understood.
Relaxation comes in many forms and undoubtedly reducing pain or swelling and improving blood flow will be enough to totally relax some of us! But massage has a positive affect on mood and stress levels too. Our autonomic nervous system, this controls the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response to danger, produces a steroid hormone called cortisol which basically makes us more alert and quickens our responses.
However, feeling stressed, not sleeping well can maintain high levels of cortisol for a prolonged periods, affecting many of the body’s normal functions such as the healing process, by blocking the release of the healing chemicals. Massage is believed to activate the parasympathetic nervous system which reduces heart rate, cortisol production and is responsible for helping to maintain harmony in our body’s systems.
The Benefits to Runners of Having a Regular Massage
Our running clients who already use massage as a key part of their health & training regime will tell you that they feel less stressed, have more energy, recover more quickly between training sessions and have less pain, with less reliance on pain-killers. Ultimately, this all feeds into improved performance, better times and less time out through injuries. But what about in the lead up to a race? What role can massage play in getting you ready for that big race and recovering afterwards?
Massage before a race
The type of massage before a race is key. The aim is to prepare the muscles for the racing, ensuring they are in optimum condition. The massage should be light, with the aim of gently flushing away any waste products which have built up during training via the lymphatic system. This will improve the flow of oxygenated blood to circulate around the muscles, improving muscle performance. This light pre-race type massage will not give you the heavy legged feeling that you can get following a deep-tissue massage. Instead, you will feel prepared and ready to race.
What happens to your body during and after a long distance race
A half-marathon or marathon distance event can affect the body in a number of ways. Your fuel stores (glycogen) will become depleted; there is a build up lactic acid in your muscles (a by product of burning fuel anaerobically i.e. without oxygen); your body becomes dehydrated (as a result of fluid loss through sweating) causing your blood volume to reduce and reducing the oxygen supply to your muscles; muscles can be come damaged (often at a microscopic level) through the repetitive strain of running such a distance. This is a normal response to overloading the tissues (in any type of training) when you are increasing speed, distance, frequency or increasing your strength training as a part of improving any of the above. This leads to you experiencing some level of tight, stiff and sore muscles, often referred to as DOMS – Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness. This will normally kick in 24 – 48 hours after the event.
The Post-race Recovery Massage
The massage will be deeper than the pre-race massage and could be slightly uncomfortable at first. The aim of the recovery massage is improve the circulatory flow of oxygenated blood and nutrients to the muscles to promote healing and reduce any inflammation present following the race. This helps to reduce the effects of DOMS, speeds up your recovery time, eases the tight, sore muscles, helping you return to training in a better state. Massage is also and effective way of reducing the risk of niggles becoming an issue if left untreated.
Note that you are likely to feel some residual soreness from the massage itself for a day or two after. It is recommended to wait 3 to 5 days before returning to more intensive training. This gives your body time to remove the byproducts from the lymphatic system that were released during the massage. You are also advised to keep well hydrated to help aid the process of waste product removal.