There are many wild and woolly claims made about the mechanisms whereby massage is good for sports performance. Massage improves circulation, massage flushes lactic acid, massage opens pores and enables nutrients and waste products to pass through, massage can break down scar tissue, massage lengthens muscles. These are all claims that can be found to be made about the benefits of sports massage.
It’s fair to say that over the years, I’ve probably made similar claims and used such claims to promote why those who are committed to their sport should incorporate regular massage into the training program.
However, the truth is that most, if not all, of these claims are either not supported by evidence, they are irrelevant or they are just plain wrong.
For example, massage improves circulation. An oft quoted benefit but what does it mean and does massage improve circulation? Maybe on massage does provide local circulation but just the action of completing their exercise regime is going to lead to a significantly greater amount of blood (and lymphatic) circulation than any massage would provide. And the athlete is getting it for free. What is being improved anyway if massage is “forcing” blood through the body? Massage improving circulation is a vague claim that is simply not defensible (and to be honest in all my years of massaging, no one has ever requested a massage to improve circulation).
Now there is no significant scientific evidence that massage can reduce DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) but there is little doubt that people feel better after a massage. To relay a story from another massage therapist, after a vigorous exercise session her calf muscles were in excruciating pain. Every step was a challenge and it felt as though when she walked that muscle fibres were being torn. After a massage to the calves then although the muscles were still sore but movement had been restored and the feeling that the muscles were tearing had gone. She does not know what changed.
As massage therapist often we don’t know why people do indeed feel better after a massage but we know that they do. As such these days I prefer not to make any specific claim or provide a detailed explanation of why massage can help sports people with performance and recovery.
But after intense exercise, athletes say that they feel better with massage. When they feel “tight”, they feel looser. When they feel fatigued, they feel restored. That’s good enough for me.