Health * Wealth * Happiness


      Sports Massage has been used for centuries in the prevention and treatment of athletic injuries, and to help improve athletic performance. Sports Massage is readily used by many professional athletes, including the U.S. Olympic Team, and it’s acceptance as an effective means of sport enhancement is apparent across a wide range of professionals, at varying levels of competition.

There are many benefits to receiving sports massage on a regular basis. Sports massage can: relax muscles, improve circulation without increasing heart load; increase range of motion; help the recipient obtain a feeling of connectedness, a better awareness of their body and the way they use and position it; relieve pain and discomfort associated with muscle tension, fractures, sprains, sciatica, and stiff joints; shorten recovery time from muscular strain by flushing the tissue of lactic acid, uric acid and other metabolic wastes; stretch the ligaments and tendons, keeping them supple; stimulate the skin and nervous system while at the same time relaxing the nerves themselves, help reduce emotional and physical stress. It is often recommended as part of a regular program for stress management, and to be used in clinical settings as medical or remedial therapy.

1. Athletic/Sports Massage Defined.

Athletic massage, also called sports massage, is the application of massage techniques that combine sound anatomical and physiological knowledge, an understanding of strength training and conditioning, and specific massage skills to enhance athletic performance. Athletic massage is a method of massage designed to prepare an athlete for an upcoming event. It is achieved through specialized manipulations that stimulate circulation of the blood and lymph.

2. The Purpose of Athletic Massage Explained.

In addition to a thorough understanding of human anatomy and physiology, the therapist must know the functions of the circulatory, skeletal, muscular, and nervous systems of the body. Athletic or Sports massage refers to a method of massage especially designed to prepare an athlete for an upcoming event and to aid in the body’s regenerative and restorative capacities following a rigorous workout or competition. This is achieved through specialized manipulations that stimulate circulation of the blood and lymph. Some sports massage movements are designed to break down lesions and adhesions or reduce fatigue. Sports massage generally follows the Swedish system of massage, with variations of movements applied according to the judgment of the practitioner and the results he or she wants to achieve. Sports teams, especially those in professional baseball, football, basketball, hockey, ice skating and swimming, often retain a professionally trained massage practitioner. Athletes, dancers and others who must keep muscles strong and supple are often instructed in automassage (how to massage one’s own muscles) and in basic massage on a partner.

Athletic massage is not limited to only the most highly competitive athlete. The very same techniques can be beneficial to any active individual for assessing and working on soft tissue conditions. Athletic massage can improve the ability to perform while reducing the incidence of lost time due to injury and fatigue. Regular athletic massage may extend the athlete’s career by identifying and eliminating conditions in the soft tissue that are at potential risk of injury.

3. The Causes of Muscle Fatigue.

A universally accepted principle of exercise is that for a training adaptation to occur, a physiological system must be exercised at a level beyond that to which it is presently accustomed. This overload forces the physiological systems to adapt to the applied stresses. The overload principle in conditioning refers to the necessity of applying stresses to the body greater than it is accustomed to in order to increase strength or endurance. Exercise frequency, duration and intensity are the variables most often manipulated to provide overload to the systems of the body.

When an individual pushes to improve muscle strength and endurance there are a few negative effects the athlete will experience.

The negative effects of exercise include:

• Increased metabolic waste build-up in the tissues

• Strains in the muscle or connective tissue. These may range from microscopic microtrauma to major injury.

• Inflammation and associated fibrosis

• Spasms and pain that restrict movement.

Dehydration, overheating, depletion of muscle fuels, low blood glucose, central fatigue, overuse or inadequate warm-up or stretching may result in muscle exhaustion. All of the aforementioned can result from overtraining. Overtraining can be defined as excessive frequency, volume, or intensity of training, resulting in fatigue. Overtraining or any other detrimental affect may be relieved or avoided with proper rest and recovery.

These negative effects of exercise normally take an athlete forty-eight to seventy-two hours to rest, adapt, and recuperate. When applied correctly, athletic massage can reduce the recuperation time by as much as 50 percent.

4. The Major Benefits of Athletic Massage.

The goal of athletic massage is to enhance the athlete’s performance. Athletic massage has many benefits for every aspect of an athletes training regimen. Restrictions from pain, spasms, and tension inhibit freedom of movement. Without freedom of movement, precision is adversely affected. Athletic massage reduces many of the restrictions and also helps to:

• Prevent muscle and tendon injuries.

• Reduces the strain and discomfort of training and chronic strain patterns, allowing a quicker return to maximum training levels.

• Enables the athlete to recover more quickly from myofascial injury with less chance of chronic problems returning.

• Provides psychological boosts to the athlete, consistent with his or her commitment to high performance.

• Enhances a preventive approach to athletic training whereby soft tissues are free of trigger points and adhesions, thus contributing toward the improvement of peak neuromuscular functioning.

• Pre-event massage stimulates circulation, calms nervous tension, and prepares the athlete for optimal performance while reducing the chances of injury.

• Post-event massage relieves soreness and assists in the removal of lactic acid and other waste products

• Training massage focuses on the prevention of developing chronic injuries and aids in the healing process of current chronic injuries.

5. Contraindications for Athletic Massage.

Athletic massage is contraindicated at the site of fresh acute muscle injuries. Any heart condition, anemia, diabetes, thyroid disorders, liver and lung conditions, cancer, skin disease, varicose veins, hypertension, internal injuries, wounds, or like conditions are basic contraindications for any type of massage.

Any type of massage is not recommended for anyone who is experiencing fever, diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, jaundice, varicose veins, bleeding, acute phlebitis, or thrombosis. In the case of high blood pressure or heart problems, avoid massage to the abdomen. Anyone with fractures or bruises should not receive massage on areas of injury. Pregnant women should check with their doctors first.

Athletic massage is contraindicated in any abnormal condition, injury, illness, or disease except as advised by the athlete’s physician.

6. Location of Major Stress Points on The Body.

Muscles often contain alarm points or stress points. Stress points are areas of chronic stress or the site of microtrauma that are generally located at the ends of muscles or in taut bands of muscle tissue. Points located in taut bands are trigger points. Stress points are often located at the musculo-tendinous junction. Due to the low ratio blood vessels to tissue, fatigue often occurs first at these two points. When a muscle is headed for injury, the first indication is often apparent here.

7. The Importance of Warm-Up Exercises and Massage and The Relation to An Athletes Performance.

Warming up or stretching before exercise prepares the mind, heart, muscles and joints for the upcoming event. Warming up lowers blood pressure, improves blood flow to the heart, increases muscle temperature and makes muscles more pliable.

Massage in general is defined as the systematic manual or mechanical manipulations of the soft tissues of the body by such movements as rubbing, kneading, pressing, rolling, slapping, and tapping, for therapeutic purposes such as promoting circulation of the blood and lymph, relaxation of muscles, relief from pain, restoration of metabolic balance, and other benefits both physical and mental.

8. The Relationship of Certain Athletic or Sports Activities to Possible Injuries.

The best way to treat an athletic injury is to prevent it. Proper massage therapy improves circulation, enabling damaged tissue to be carried away while making rebuilding nutrients available so that healing time is reduced.

Massage is contraindicated at the site of fresh acute muscle injuries. Massage for new or fresh injuries should only be given by properly trained therapists in conjunction with a physician’s approval. Rehabilitative massage can be given at the rate of once or twice a day during the time the athlete is out of training and every other day or every third day until he or she is back to a full training schedule.

Rehabilitative Massage:

• Shortens the time it takes for an injury to heal

• Maintains or increases range of motion

• Helps to reduce swelling and edema

• Eliminates splinting in associated muscle tissue

• Helps to form strong, pliable scar tissue

• Locates and deactivates trigger points that form as a result of the trauma

• Helps get the athlete back into training sooner with less chance of reinjury

RICE is an acronym for rest, ice, compression and elevation. This represents proper first aid for soft tissue injuries. Acute injuries have a sudden and definite onset and are usually of relatively short duration. Chronic injuries have a gradual onset, tend to last for a long time, or reoccur often. Strains involve tearing of muscle tissue or tendons. Sprains involve ligaments.

9. Four Basic Applications of Athletic Massage and the Goals of each.

The four basic applications for athletic massage are massage previous to an event, massage after an event, massage during training, and massage during injury rehabilitation.

The goal of pre-event massage is to increase circulation and flexibility in the areas of the body about to be used. The goal of post-event massage is to increase circulation to clear out metabolic wastes, reduce muscle tension and spasm, and quiet the nervous system. The goal of massage during training is to allow the athlete to train at a higher level of intensity, more consistently, with less chance of injury, and to maintain muscles in the best possible state of nutrition, flexibility, and vitality. The goal of massage during rehabilitation is to get the athlete back into full performance a soon as possible with less chance of reinjury.

Massage is considered to be most beneficial to the athlete as a regular part of his or her scheduled training. The therapist must be sure to apply proper techniques in order to avoid aggravating a condition or causing permanent damage to the area.

10. Massage Techniques Commonly used in athletic Massage.

Techniques commonly used in sports massage include those of Swedish massage plus compression, cross-fiber friction, deep pressure, and active joint movements.

The primary goal of compression is to create hyperemia in the muscle tissue. In athletic massage, hyperemia refers to the increases amount of blood and other fluids in and moving through the muscle tissue. Compression is applied with the palm of the hand in a rhythmic pumping action to the belly of the muscle.

Transverse or cross-fiber friction massage was popularized by the British osteopath Dr. James Cyriax. Cross fiber friction is applied by rubbing across the fibers of the tendon, muscle, or ligament at a 90 degree angle to the fibers. The use of transverse friction effectively reduces fibrosis and encourages the formation of strong, pliable scar tissue at the site of healing injuries. Cross-fiber friction is effective at reducing the crystalline roughness that forms between tendons and their sheaths that sometimes result in painful tendonitis. The objective of using cross-fiber friction in athletic massage is to reduce fibrosis, encourage the formation of strong, pliable scar tissue at the site of healing injuries, and prevent or soften adhesions in fibrous tissue.

In athletic massage, deep pressure is used to relieve stress points and deactivate trigger points. Deep pressure does not mean painful techniques. The athlete must understand that a certain amount of discomfort may occur and be willing to work with the therapists through deep breathing and relaxation techniques. Deep and intense massage is like an intense workout and should be done when training is light or during the athlete’s off days.

Active joint movements or more commonly referred to today as Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation system of therapy. It is better known by the acronym PNF. PNF stretching is based on reciprocal inhibition and post-isometric relaxation. PNF has been utilized in one form or another by many health care providers and athletic trainers. It is utilized in most instances to enhance range of motion for improved athletic performance or in a rehabilitation setting to restore range of motion that has been decreased due to injury.

Another form of active joint movements that is a modification of PNF is called Muscle Energy Technique or MET. MET helps to counteract muscle spasm, improve flexibility, and restore muscle strength. PNF stretching or MET is performed by moving the affected body part to the point of discomfort and then backing out to the point where no discomfort is experienced. The therapist then holds that position while the client contracts the muscles for about 5 to 30 seconds and then relaxes. This is repeated until the client experiences improved flexibility and articulation.

11. Identify the presence of soft tissue injury.

To be an effective athletic (sports) massage therapist, a person should have a thorough understanding of anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, biomechanics, and massage technique. While each area of study is important, kinesiology, which is the study of body movement, helps the therapist in particular to recognize which muscles and muscle groups the athlete is using in a particular sport. The other area of study that is of particular importance to sports therapists is biomechanics. Biomechanics is the study of biological systems and the forces, pressures and movement patterns that occur during different activities. The study of biomechanics dates back to Leonardo DaVinci, Galileo and many other scientists. All these scientists had a primary interest in the application of mechanics to biological problems. This knowledge of kinesiology and biomechanics is especially important when pain is present in order to diagnose and treat injuries correctly.

It is the nature of athletes to push the limit and beyond in order to excel at their particular sport. Constant stress and strain combined with constant fatigue can lead to microtrauma or more serious injury. When working with clients or when teaching my martial arts students I have always cautioned that, “A person’s greatest strength when overextended can become that person’s greatest weakness.” Quite simply, know your limits and the risks involved when exceeding those limits.

Most athletic injuries result from trauma, a fall or contact, or simply the result of excessive and/or repeated stress to a particular area. Strains involve the tearing of muscle tissue or tendons. Sprains involve ligaments. Grade I, Grade II and Grade II is how the severity of strains or sprains is graded. Grade I is mild pain. Grade II is moderate to severe pain with some tearing of the fibrous tissue and reduced range of motion. Grade III is the most serious with immediate pain, extensive swelling with no range of motion present.

Massage on acute injuries is contraindicated; however prompt first aid greatly reduces the extent of injury and recovery time. As noted earlier, RICE is the acronym for Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. Frequent applications of RICE for the first twenty-four to forty-eight hours will reduce the pain, swelling, and spasm significantly.

After a period of 48 to 72 hours, when the swelling and inflammation have subsided and the injury has entered the subacute stage, massage treatments are begun to stimulate circulation to and away from the area and to begin to mobilize the tissue so that as the tissue regenerates, scar tissue forms that is strong, pliable, and flexible. Pain is the indicator to the athlete and therapist as to the intensity of the techniques.

12. Conclusion

Massage during training, also called restorative massage, is the most beneficial form of sports massage for an athlete. As an exercise enthusiast and amateur athlete, I can attribute much of my performance and physical health to restorative and preventative massage therapy. Massage during training increases blood and lymph circulation thereby allowing more efficient oxygen and nutrient transportation to the cells that need it most as well as more efficient removal of toxic waste from the very same cells.

Another benefit of restorative massage is the breaking down of transverse adhesions that may have resulted from previous injuries. This promotes better power, better circulation, less chance of injury, increased mobility, increased flexibility and better performance. The athlete will be able to achieve maximum effort sooner and maintain it longer with fewer, if any detrimental effects.

Sports Massage, Athletic massage or any modality of massage therapy, when applied conscientiously and correctly, always has the same objective: to provide a service that enhances the client’s physical health and sense of well being. I truly hope that this sports massage review will help you in your bodywork endeavors. If you have any questions on the above, personal training or massage in general feel free to give me, Jesse Harshbarger a call at 703-981-4563 or email at

Reference Books

Milady’s Theory and Practice of Therapeutic Massage, Beck’s 3rd Edition, Copyright © 1999 (Milady Publishers)

Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, By the National Strength and Conditioning Association, Thomas R. Baechle and Roger W. Earle, Editors. Published by Human Kinetics

© 2002, 2003 NCBTMB, Virginia License & Professional Member AMTA — All Rights Reserved

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