The Science of Massage Therapy

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by Dr. Reed Ferber, Ph.D. CAT(C)

Massage therapists have been a part of the sports medicine team for decades, and there’s some solid research out there that demonstrates how massage can help prevent injuries and aid post-run recovery. The fundamental theory behind massage therapy is that the manipulation of different layers of muscle and connective tissue has two main effects: first, improving muscle function; and second, assisting with muscle recovery and rehabilitation.

Toa Heftiba / Unsplash

In a study that surveyed 745 runners after a race about their use of massage, 80% believed that massage would benefit muscle recovery following the race, but only 44% had previously received a massage. In fact, this belief that massage is beneficial has been supported by several studies, with most reporting that even just 10 minutes of massage, given within three hours after exercise, is effective in alleviating muscle soreness, reducing the chemical by-products of muscle damage by approximately 30%, and reducing muscle and joint swelling. Another study also reported that a 30-minute massage, combined with wearing compression stockings, significantly reduced perceived muscles soreness for the next 48 to 72 hours and was more effective than either method alone. So, we can conclude that massage therapy plays a beneficial role in helping muscles to recover from strenuous exercise and during the rehabilitation process.

Next, several studies have conclusively shown that massage therapy does little to help increase muscle strength if you are healthy, nor does it mitigate the loss of strength and function when a muscle is injured. In other words, a massage is very beneficial in helping an injured muscle recover, from the injury in general or from a specific workout. However, a massage cannot help a muscle produce more force and thereby improve your performance.

Turning our attention to the injury prevention aspect of massage, researchers at Wilfrid Laurier University and Waterloo Sports Medicine conducted a highly interesting study. They enrolled 12 runners to serve as controls, while another sixteen runners met weekly with a registered massage therapist for a 30-minute massage. Both groups participated in a 10-week program to train for a 10K race. Interestingly, 100% of the runners in the massage group completed the 10K race at the end of the training program as compared to only 58% of the runners in the control group. Obviously, this is a small study, but the results are promising and speak to the benefits of regular massage to prevent injuries while you train.

Another relevant factor is the level of education and amount of training the massage therapist has completed. A group of 317 runners were offered a 15-minute massage immediately after a 10K race. The runners were randomly assigned to a massage therapist with either 450, 700, or 950 hours of training. The results showed that a greater reduction in muscle soreness was achieved by therapists with 950 hours of training as opposed to those with only 700 or 450 hours of training. So, buyer/runner beware!

My advice is to seek out a registered massage therapist with a high level of credentials and experience. You may find that a 30-minute massage once a week will help you achieve your training goals and prevent injury. If you’ve got an upcoming race, book your massage to occur within three hours post-race. If you are injured, massage can play a useful role in alleviating muscle soreness, reducing chemical by-products, and bringing down swelling.

 


Dr. Reed Ferber is the director of the Running Injury Clinic, a world leader in running-related research and 3D gait analysis technology. For more information, visit www.runninginjuryclinic.com.

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