When applied appropriately, sports massage can help athletes achieve peak performance, as well as prevent the dreaded delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) we all experience after a rough work out. When preparing for competitive athletic events, there are many avenues an athlete may take to achieve peak performance. When an athlete chooses massage as part of their regiment, it’s good to know exactly when and how to benefit that athlete. We want to avoid wasted effort, and even more importantly, we never want to hinder performance. Not all massage is appropriate for all parts of an athlete’s training and preparation. Specific styles are more useful at different times, and it’s good to have a therapist that is skilled in each of these styles.

To coin a phrase, “just because I toasted my bagel in Georgia, doesn’t mean it was southern cooking, and just because I massaged an athlete, doesn’t mean it was a sports massage.” If you want a southern breakfast, have a true southerner cook up some grits for you. If you want a sports massage, make sure your therapist has been well trained in the art. Be cautious in your choices, as some chefs are awful, and some massage therapists will simply give the same routine they give for all massages, and call it a sports massage.

When done properly, we select our massage technique based on the athlete’s training schedule. Most athletes have a ‘season’ in which they compete, and the training they do changes as the season approaches. Here is a common example:

  • Early pre-season training: Athletes are returning to training after a short break of a month or two. Training tends to be rigorous, and full body oriented. Expect the athlete to be running, weight training, and having fun with cross fit. Also expect a lot of DOMS. A massage therapist should select techniques that reduce that soreness, allowing for faster recovery time. A therapist that gives a great Swedish massage works well for this.
  • Late pre-season training: Intensity of training tends to drop just a bit, but focuses more on the specific task the athlete has to perform. Pitchers focus on their pitch, runners tag extra miles onto their morning run, and gymnasts practice the parts of their routine. This is a good time to work with the athlete, and maybe even the trainer, to work out a more specific treatment plan. For instance, the pitcher might want help with the full body twist that happens from the foot, leg and hips during a great pitch, or maybe it’s an achy wrist that is the focus. A therapist with a lot of experience in kinesiology is best at this time.
  • Pre-event: This is the time sports massage requires the most specific technique. You really want a therapist that has a strong background in this treatment form. It is very difficult to do, and not everyone can do it. Giving this treatment is an incredible work out. Treatments are typically about 15-20 minutes long. No deep or postural styles should be performed. The style is intended to invigorate the athlete, rather than sedate. Strokes are fast, there is a lot of jostling and quick muscle wringing intended to warm up the muscles, arms and legs are quickly and repeatedly moved through their range of motion, and the therapist should expect to sweat. I’ve seen many students change their mind about wanting to specialize in sports massage after teaching this part of the course. It’s really that intense.
  • Post-event: This is after the marathon, or after the game. The athlete has given all of what she had to the event, and is now likely to be sore the next day. This is a good time to treat for DOMS prevention. Use gentler gliding and kneading strokes. Enjoy a great relaxation treatment.
  • Off season: The marathon is over, or your athlete client has played in the Super Bowl. Vacation is called for. Some beers may be enjoyed. With that, some of the exercise routines might get shorter, weaker, or even ignored for a month or so. This is the time to do deep work. Your athlete is not as much at risk of messing up a game or work out due to soreness from a deep postural massage. For this you want a therapist with good skill working with chronic aches and pains, old injuries, and postural concerns. Considering having just made it to the Super Bowl, maybe a fun seaweed wrap and Vichy shower might be in order too! Enjoy the time off!