Running rehab specialist Matt Phillips explains the benefits of sports massage for runners.

Some runners swear by it, others say it’s a waste of money. The fact that most elite runners have regular massage suggests there must be something in it, but how valuable a tool is it for recreational runners? Is there any evidence it reduces injury or increases performance? Let’s take a look…

What Does Massage Do?

The most commonly proposed benefits of massage are it helps flushes away lactic acid, improves circulation, breaks down muscle/fascia adhesions. It may therefore come as a surprise to hear that none of these are supported by research. In fact, application of a little basic science suggests that such claims are either unlikely or simply not true.

What? So all that time & money I’ve invested has been for nothing? No, hear me out – I am a big fan of massage: there is no doubt in my mind that it can help runners, just not in the way you think, and probably not as much as you may have been lead to believe.

Flushing Myths

Modern research has made it quite clear that muscle soreness is not caused by lactic acid build up. Lactic acid (or more accurately ‘lactate’) actually clears from the blood stream the moment you stop running, so the idea that massage helps ‘flush it out’ makes no sense.

How about flushing out toxins? Well, in all honesty, despite a lot of therapists using that as reason, no one can actually say what these ‘toxins’ actually are. It’s an idea that sounds good but is certainly not scientifically based.

Linked with these flushing myths is the idea that massage ‘improves circulation’. Despite this being a very common claim, any increase in circulation would actually be minimal. Circulation increases when you raise metabolic demand; in other words, giving a massage will increase circulation far more than receiving one.

Breaking Down Knots

Ok, stay with me. Remember, I am a fan of massage and will get to the benefits soon. We just have to clear up the misconceptions first. Many runners put up with (and even expect) considerable discomfort during a sports massage in the belief that the therapist is applying the required force to break down ‘knots’ or ‘scar tissue’. This idea is, once again, a myth; surgeons use scalpels to cut through scar tissue, so the belief that pressure from a thumb or elbow could break it down is obviously misplaced.

If your muscles feel more relaxed or lengthened after a sports massage, fantastic. But it’s not because the therapist has managed to force physical changes in your body’s tissues. It’s actually quite scary to think that a human being could do that with their bare hands.     

How Does Massage Help Then?

So, what does massage do then? Studies show that massage after exercise can reduce the intensity of post exercise soreness. So what is happening? Some of you may already be asking ‘why does it matter how it works, as long as it does?’ The answer to that question is as follows: if we know how something works, we can tweak it to make it work even better. If you (and your therapist) truly believe that the deep tissue massage is ‘breaking down scar tissue’, you will both be happy to put up with considerable pain, with shouts of “this hurts like hell but I know it’s necessary” and “no pain, no gain!”

Though there is a lot about pain that we do not yet understand, what we do know is that allowing a therapist to pummel you can actually lead to a delay in recovery. Pain is an output from a nervous system that is essentially trying to protect you from real or perceived damage. Trying to fight pain doesn’t make sense because all you’ll ultimately do is wind the nervous system up even more and cause it to output even more pain. This is why stress, poor nutrition, lack of food, etc. can all increase pain. They all cause the nervous system to feel more vulnerable. And this is where we now reveal the most likely mechanism behind massage… it relaxes the nervous system.

Relaxing the Nervous System

Studies show that massage can reduce both depression & anxiety. It relaxes the nervous system, removing threat and giving it less reason to output pain or restrict movement. This is why after a suitably deep massage we often feel less pain and can move more freely. The effect will not necessarily last forever (we have all seen how the initial pain often returns after a few days) but it can be a way to speed up recovery, allowing us to train more intensely without increasing the risk of overload and injury. We all enjoy a firm massage but putting up with too high a pressure runs the risk of doing the opposite.

Conclusion

Massage can help runners, just probably not for the reasons traditionally given. By relaxing the nervous system (as opposed to winding it up), massage can aid recovery, allowing you to train vigorously without increasing risk of injury. The skill of the massage therapist therefore lies in applying a suitable amount of pressure at the right time. Talk of ‘breaking down scar tissue’ or ‘realigning tissues’ is outdated and can lead to runners putting up with unnecessary pain that can actually delay recovery.   

Matt Phillips is a Running Injury & Performance Specialist and host of the podcast Runchatlive. Website: www.runchatlive.com