Many athletes, coaches, and health experts will swear by the benefits of massage for runners. A rubdown—even a deep, intense one—feels great, right?
Runners report that massages help lessen muscle tension and improve range of motion, while also making them feel relaxed and rewarded for their hard efforts. Yet despite massage’s popularity and positive reputation, there’s been little scientific evidence to support why athletes feel so good when they hop off the table.
“It can be hard to merge basic science with alternative medicine,” says Justin Crane, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology at Northeastern University, who conducted some of the earlier objective studies on massage.
Practitioners say massage relieves muscle soreness, promotes circulation, flushes toxins and lactic acid from the body, and eases joint strain—claims supported by centuries of anecdotal evidence from China, Sweden, and around the globe. But science hadn’t confirmed just what massage actually achieves, until recently. Read on to find out what’s true and what’s not, according to researchers.
The Benefits of Massage for Runners
Massages apply moving pressure to muscles and other tissues such as tendons, ligaments, and fascia (which sheaths muscles like a sausage casing). “That energy softens fascia tissue and makes clenched muscles relax,” JoEllen Sefton, Ph.D., director of the school of kinesiology at Auburn University, who has practiced massage therapy tells Runner’s World. It also removes adhesions between fascia and muscles (places where the two stick together and restrict muscles’ movement). That’s especially great news for runners, who rely on limber joints and muscles for pain-free peak performance.
What’s more, researchers of a meta-analysis found that sports massages slightly contributed to improving flexibility and delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). (The researchers couldn’t confirm, however, that massages had any impacts on athletic performance.)
Brad Whitley, P.T., D.P.T., physical therapist at Bespoke Treatments in San Diego says, “By targeting certain muscle groups heavily used while running, a sports massage can improve the resiliency of these soft tissues and thus promote healthy muscles and tendons.”
Plus, other research suggests that massages can help reduce inflammation and may even improve immune function. Mark Rapaport, M.D. department chair of psychiatry at the University of Utah and former Emory University researcher, found that massage treatment resulted in an increased number of several types of lymphocytes (white blood cells that play a key role in fighting infection) while also decreasing levels of cortisol (the “stress hormone” linked to chronic inflammation).
“More research is needed, but it’s reasonable to think that massage could help runners taxed from exertion,” Rapaport says. It may also help curb chronic diseases. “We know that systemic inflammation is associated with a lot of deleterious effects, such as heart attack and stroke, and that it predisposes people to cancers,” he says. So doing anything to reduce inflammation can benefit health.
Crane’s research, published in Science Translational Medicine, found less inflammation in massaged limbs—and 30 percent more of a gene that helps muscle cells build mitochondria (the “engines” that turn a cell’s food into energy and facilitate its repair). “What we saw suggests that massage could let runners tolerate more training, and harder training, because it would improve their recovery and speed up their ability to go hard two days later,” he says.
Myths About Massage Therapy
Let’s set the record straight: Science doesn’t support some ingrained beliefs about massage. “It can’t push toxins out of the muscles and into the bloodstream,” says Sefton. “There’s no physiological way that can happen.” Nor does it appear to flush lactic acid from muscles, says Crane, who analyzed muscle samples after subjects cycled to exhaustion and then received a 10-minute massage. “People assumed that because lactic acid feels burny, and massage reduces pain, then it must clear away lactic acid,” he says. But that’s not the case.
Also, massage has little impact on muscle stiffness in runners, another symptom of running believed to be treated by massages. A study published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine found a postrun massage was no more effective than the placebo treatment in alleviating muscle stiffness in the quads, hamstrings, and calfs muscles of runners after a 40-minute downhill run.
How often should you get a massage?
That depends. Getting a massage two to three days before or after a race is best for blood flow, Whitley says. “This will allow a time period for the tissues to heal post massage before a race, as well as ensure that some muscle healing has occurred post-race day.” But ultimately it will all depend on your training volume, intensity, terrain, and personal preference, he says.
Regular massage can boost recovery and be a valuable training tool to help you run your best. That’s because muscle soreness can throw off your gait, which leads to problems over time, Sefton says. “And by getting a sense for how your body should feel when everything is in balance, you’re more likely to notice small issues before they turn into chronic problems.”
Even beginner runners can benefit from massage, because alleviating the soreness that comes with starting a new sport makes people more likely to stick with it.
How to Self-Massage
Can’t afford weekly treatments? Self-massage with foam rollers, percussion guns, or compression boots, and other tools like tennis balls can be beneficial in between visits. They can also help runners prep for workouts, because they loosen up muscles. “Just don’t overdo the pressure,” says Sefton, who notes that even a person’s body weight on a foam roller sometimes applies too much force (and causes muscles to tighten in defense).
“Bodywork just before a race or hard workout should be light,” says massage therapist Anna Gammal, who worked with athletes at the Olympics. “We don’t want muscles to feel sore or overworked.”
After a race or grueling workout, a therapist may go deeper in order to help with recovery—or not. It all depends on the individual, Gammal says. “Through talking with the athlete and using touch, a therapist will determine the state of the muscle and if it’s best to use light strokes or deep-tissue techniques to treat an athlete in a safe and productive way.”