A post-workout rubdown may feel good, but there are some things you should know before you hop onto the massage table. For optimal performance, athletes and very active individuals should ask for specific things from their masseur that a normal spa-goer wouldn’t — especially if you’re dealing with or recovering from an injury. Here’s how to know you’re getting the most out of your treatments and to be sure you’re staying safe while you’re at it.
What Is Sports Massage, Anyway?
Spas and other facilities that offer massages usually give clients a menu of options ranging from hot stone to Swedish to deep tissue. Some also offer sports massage, which is usually a combination of techniques tailored to an athlete’s specific needs, depending on their sport and the muscles they use most.
For spas that don’t advertise a sports option, says Patrick Walsh, clinical director of Shift Integrative Medicine in New York City, communication — both when booking your appointment and when meeting your therapist — is key.
“Most people who go to a spa want a general relaxation massage, so that’s usually what a therapist assumes,” says Walsh, a former massage therapist for the New York Giants. “Athletes need to be prepared to say, ‘My back is really tight,’ or ”My legs are sore,’ and ask the therapist to spend more time on those parts and less time on other areas.”
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Sports massages usually require firmer pressure than treatments performed strictly for relaxation or overall loosening up. (If a spa doesn’t offer a designated sports massage, says Walsh, a deep-tissue or trigger-point option is probably the closest thing to it.) Gentler massages can certainly feel good when you’re stiff and sore, says physical therapist Alycea Ungaro, owner and instructor at Real Pilates in New York City, but they likely won’t have much of a lasting benefit.
“Most really good physical therapy is uncomfortable, and that can include massage,” says Ungaro. “Muscles that get into holding patterns from overuse typically will not release with a light massage as well as they will with deep tissue one.”
Does It Work?
In a 2014 study from the University of Illinois, massage was shown to improve blood flow and reduce soreness in muscles after a hard workout, theoretically helping to speed recovery. But here’s the catch: It needs to be done right away.
“Based on the current research, massage therapy is likely most beneficial when performed within an hour after strenuous exercise, mainly due to the timing of the acute inflammatory response,” says study author and exercise physiologist Nina Cherie Franklin.
That may sound like a bummer for anyone who can’t get an appointment for a day or two after a big race, but it doesn’t necessarily mean your massage is pointless. “Even if there’s no real evidence that it can improve performance, we know that tissue work can help with things like muscle spasms and biomechanical imbalances, which can certainly be very useful for athletes,” says Ungaro.
Injured Athletes, Take Care
One time you might want to think twice about getting a massage? If you’ve had an injury — especially a back injury — or you’re experiencing unexplained pain.
“There are some types of back pain that can get worse when you get a massage,” says Walsh. Specifically, he says, sciatica (sudden-onset pain that extends down the back and into the butt or legs) stemming from a herniated disc can be aggravated by deep tissue stimulation.
That’s not to say that everyone with back pain should avoid massages, however. “For other types of back pain, like muscle spasms, massage is the perfect thing,” says Walsh. “But if you’ve suddenly started experiencing pain and you don’t really know what’s going on yet, I’d proceed with caution.”
That means getting checked out by a doctor or physical therapist before getting a massage, Walsh says, or — if you have a standing appointment with someone you know and trust — talking to your massage therapist about what you’re experiencing. “If you tell me you’re having pain and you don’t know why, I’m going to be very careful about not putting too much pressure down your lower back.”
In addition to unexplained back pain, athletes who are pregnant or who have ongoing health concerns or skin conditions should alert their therapist to avoid any unnecessary risks or side effects. And if you’re ever in real pain during or after a massage, don’t be afraid to tell your therapist to lighten up. Working out the kinks can be uncomfortable, but it should never leave you feeling worse than before.
Finding a Good Fit
While some therapists have more experience with one type of massage, says Walsh, they all generally have the same training and are able to perform anything their spa offers. That’s why it can be helpful to call and ask ahead of time if there are specific staff members who have experience with athletes.
It’s illegal in most states to practice massage without a license, but it still can’t hurt to ask about a therapist’s training and make sure a facility is fully certified. It’s also helpful to ask for referrals, says Ungaro. “I recommend going to facilities that work in connection with other professionals, like a Pilates studio or a physical therapist who already knows you and who you trust.”
Being aware of what’s happening in your body, especially if you tend to push it to the extreme from time to time, can help with knowing the best recovery practices. By doing so, you can always be sure your massage is doing more good than harm.