19 April 2007

The sports massage

A sports massage involves the mobilisation and manipulation of soft tissue structures. The different techniques result in various benefits.


A sports massage involves the mobilisation and manipulation of soft tissue structures. The different techniques result in various benefits. It helps to prepare athletes for competition or helps them to maintain their bodies in optimal condition. It comprises three basic forms: pre-event massage, post-event massage and maintenance massage.

A brief history of the sports massage
The healing power of touch is an ancient concept. Massage is considered to be one of the oldest treatments used by humans. Chinese records that documents its use 3 000 years ago have been found, with claims that it had already been used in the treatment of paralysis and circulatory problems for 5 000 years.

The ancient Persians and Egyptians also used forms of massage in the treatment of certain ailments. Similarly, in both India and Thailand certain forms of massage have been used for the past 5 000 and 2 500 years respectively. Hippocrates used massage in the treatment of certain conditions in 400 B.C..

However, as a formal practice, the sports massage began in the Soviet Union and Communist bloc countries in the 1960s. Soviet teams were the first to have massage therapists travel with them, providing ongoing and regular treatment for their athletes.

The concept of the sports massage moved to Europe and the USA in the 1970s. In 1996, it was an official service offered at Atlanta’s Olympic Village. Whilst initially the sports massage was the exclusive preserve of professional athletes, athletes of all calibres began to make use of it as its benefits became widely accepted.

The benefits of the sports massage
It is an undisputed fact that the sports massage offers numerous benefits to the athlete. However, the nature of these benefits and how they are bought about is less clear.

In a recent report published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine (April, 2000, volume 34, #2), the authors were unable to provide any scientific evidence that the sports massage improved physiological recovery after exercise. However, they claim that there are possible psychological benefits that require further scientific investigation.

In essence:

  • Pre-event sports massages helps to warm up the muscles by stretching them and making them more flexible; improves circulation to the muscles; decreases muscle tension and produces a feeling of psychological readiness.
  • Post-event massages helps to loosen tired, stiff muscles and promotes blood flow to the muscles. One to two hours should be allowed to pass after the event, before the massage session, to allow the dilated blood vessels to return to normal. Psychologically, it promotes a sense of well-being and relaxation, which is just what is needed after a hard work-out.
  • Maintenance sports massages are usually done once a week (especially in the case of professional athletes), many of whom have their own massage therapists. These massages help to keep the athletes flexible and provide them with some degree of pain relief that accompanies high-level training.

But does the occasional or perhaps monthly sports massage offer any benefits to average athletes?

Whilst there might not be any scientific studies to prove that performance will improve or that recovery will speed up, there are enough satisfied athletes who swear by these monthly treatments - even if the massages are purely viewed as a reward to your body for a month of hard training.

Here are some of the health benefits of the sports massage:

  • Improved circulation to damaged or painful tissue
  • Possible reduction in muscle pain, tension and spasm
  • Microstretching of muscles
  • Relaxation
  • Decreased anxiety levels
  • A sense of well-being and vitality
  • Depending on the nature of the massage, the possibility of feeling invigorated
  • Improved awareness of body, which can lead to the early detection of minor problems

The sports massage session
The session might last for anything from 30 minutes to an hour, depending on whether you are receiving massage for specifics parts of your body (e.g. back and legs) or a full body sports massage.

There are many different massage techniques that are very briefly summarised in the table below. These include:

Type Description Function
Effleurage A light stroking that can be performed with palms/thumbs Increases blood flow to the muscle
Petrissage Two-handed kneading; both hands pick up muscle and compress it Loosens tight muscles
Percussive strokes Blows or strikes on the muscle, often performed by little fingers Warms up muscle; tones muscle
Cupping Rhythmic striking of the muscle with cupped hands Warms up muscle; tones muscle
Friction Circular friction applied most often; sometimes deep cross-fibre applied Decreases muscle spasm and relieves muscle tension; may assist in breaking down scar tissue

Depending on the purpose of the treatment, some or all of these techniques may be employed during the massage session.

Popularity in South Africa
Sports massage courses are now readily available in South Africa. With the increasing number of trained therapists available and the ever-increasing popularity of sports massages it certainly is a growing industry.

The Massage Therapy Association of SA was formed in 1998 and since 2001, massage therapy has been more tightly regulated in SA.

A few cautionary notes
Whereas massage can help to remedy a sports injury, in certain instances, the injury could be aggravated by massage (e.g. certain ligament and joint injuries, where immobilisation is required). If you are uncertain about your injury, seek advice from a sports medicine professional before you get a sports massage.

People suffering from any of the conditions listed below should speak to their physician before obtaining a sports massage:

  • Acute infectious disease
  • Heavy bruising
  • Cancer
  • Hernia
  • High blood pressure
  • Inflammation due to tissue damage
  • Osteoporosis
  • Phlebitis (inflammation of a vein)
  • Varicose veins
  • Open wounds
  • A fever
  • Certain skin conditions
  • Injected (local) cortisone

If you are intoxicated, a sports massage is not recommended either.

Final note
To ensure that you are receiving a sports massage from someone who is adequately qualified, enquire about certification and registration with the Massage Therapy Association of SA. – (Kathleen McQuaide, Sports Science Institute of SA)


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