The repetitive nature of running causes sustained relaxing and contracting of muscles for extended periods of time. These repeated muscle contractions are what allow us to run faster, further and stronger, depending on the force generated. Over time, however, these repetitive muscle contractions can lead to:
- tight, shortened muscles
- a loss in joint range of motion
- decrease in blood circulation to compressed muscle tissue Which is exactly where massage therapy can work its magic.
The major benefit of massage is that it relaxes tense muscles and removes adhesions or minor scar tissue between muscles and fascia, a fancy word for the sheath or casing that surrounds your muscles. Unneeded tension and adhesions can restrict movement and impair your range of motion, potentially leading to abnormal movement patterns that can cause overuse injuries. The other major benefit of massage for runners is quite simply pain relief.
Massage benefits include:
1. Dilates blood vessels which promotes circulation and lowers blood pressure
2. Assists venous blood flow
3. Promotes rapid removal of metabolic waste products
4. Improves the oxygen-carrying capacity of red blood cell
5. Improves pulmonary function by loosening tight respiratory muscles
6. Reduces muscle soreness and fatigue
7. Increases/restores joint range of motion
8. Reduces cortisol levels and norepinephrine and epinephrine levels
9. Restores posture and gait
10. Improves connective tissue healing What does all that mean to a runner? You can recover faster after a hard session and be ready for another sooner. Running more fast workouts – or higher mileage – is one of the best ways to become a better runner.
And massage can help you do that while reducing the injury risk.
How Often and When Should a Runner Get a Massage? The frequency at which you get a massage is completely up to you, and depends on how much you like massage, how hard you’re training, and your budget.
If you’re able to afford it, getting a monthly or weekly massage can help prevent injuries by catching tight areas before they become problematic. If it is not possible to fit a recurring massage in your budget, consider one or two per training segment during your hardest training block or when you’re performing more intense speed work, which tends to elicit injuries that can be treated by massage, like tight calves, hamstrings or hips.
Just like running, with its benefits that add up over years of consistent training, the benefits of massage therapy are also cumulative over time. Every massage will help you, but regular massages throughout your training schedule will be most beneficial.
In general, there are four different categories of sports massage: pre-event, post-event, general sports and injury-specific. Each type of massage has a different goal. As a result, there are a number of right times for a runner to receive a sports massage, as long as the type of massage is administered correctly and is in line with the runner’s goals.
Goal: To get the body ready for a race or event.
It is important to keep in mind that every person responds differently to massage. This is particularly salient when it comes to pre-event work. Some clients love to get really deep work the day before or even the day of an event; some prefer a light flush; others respond best to over-the-clothes compression, and some don’t want to be touched at all for the three or four days leading up to a race. It is important to experiment with pre-event work prior to a workout or less important race before implementing it as preparation for a more important competition.
That being said, in general, the day or two before a race a runner will usually benefit from light flushing work combined with compressions, rocking and shaking. Before a race, a Swedish massage can help improve relaxation, muscle tension, and lower your stress levels without damaging or stressing the tissue. Just what you want pre-competition! You should come out of a pre-event massage feeling light, springy and energetic. I even like adding in aromatherapy. Especially citrus or mint essential oils that help energize.
Goal: To expedite recovery from a race and decrease post-exercise soreness.
You just put your body under a tremendous amount of stress. Muscles have undergone micro-trauma and tearing.
The massage should be on the lighter side but slightly deeper than pre-event work, with slow, controlled, flushing strokes. If the work is too deep it can damage muscles further and prolong how long it takes to recover from the event.
I will quite often incorporate a moderate amount of static stretching into the massage. A flushing massage and assisted static stretching is a great formula for decreasing post-exercise soreness and substantially speeding up recovery from a race or event.
General Massage for Runners
Goal: To loosen tight muscles, release trigger points, increase range of motion and reduce the risk of injury.
Runners tend to require and respond best to deeper work when receiving a general massage. This is where the art of massage becomes particularly important. This is when I can pay very close attention to what I’m feeling in the tissue. It allows me to work deep enough to be effective but not so deep that it causes the client to tense up and fight the work. Some soreness for 24 to 36 hours after the massage is generally fine, but should not last longer or causes visible bruising.
Goal: To facilitate healing of an injured muscle, tendon or ligament.
Massage on an injured muscle, tendon or ligament can be extremely effective if applied appropriately. Every injury is different, and the massage protocol will vary depending on the type and extent of the injury.
Home Treatments The use of home self-massage devices is a tremendous supplement to the work we perform in the clinic and makes massage sessions even more beneficial.
A foam roller is your best option at only about $20-$25 and can be used for years.
The Stick is another option, which I prefer for the calves and hamstrings. It offers a slightly deeper massage in my experience.
A massage ball can go deeper and be used well for specific trigger points.
But be careful: deeper pressure isn’t necessarily better. Muscles can tighten up as a defense mechanism, so stick with relatively gentle pressure.
If your budget allows, treat yourself to regular therapeutic massages throughout your training. Not only is it a glorious reward for hard and consistent training, but it will also benefit your body in many ways. Be sure to hydrate well and do your home care often in between massage sessions.