Most often, getting a massage is thought to be a luxurious splurge, where you don a fluffy spa robe, lounge in a room lit by candles while calming music lulls you into a relaxed state and later sip tea by a fireplace or hot tub. Though this is one way to get a massage, it isn’t the only way — especially if you’re a runner.
“In the athletic world, massage therapy can be so much more than a relaxing, soothing and luxury experience,” explains Emmilynne Quinn, licensed massage therapist at Professional Physical Therapy. “It can play a major part in an athlete’s training — pre-event, post-event and in the recovery process.”
Here’s what runners need to know before getting on the table for a rubdown:
DIFFERENT TYPES OF MASSAGE
There are four common types of massage: Swedish, deep tissue, sports and trigger point. Identifying what you hope to get out of the experience helps you choose the right form:
1. SWEDISH MASSAGE
This method is the one you were probably thinking of in the example above, known for its relaxing properties. “With this type of massage, therapists typically use long, gliding strokes in an attempt to decrease general hypertonicity — or tension — in the muscles,” says Kim Davis, chiropractor and founder/CEO of RunLab. “This type of therapy often addresses muscle groups in large subsections and the muscles are worked from insertion to origin (toward the heart) with very light gliding or kneading movements. The prevailing thought is that this helps improve circulation and relax muscles.”
This relaxation also affects your mind, which Davis notes can be important for athletes trying to juggle training with home- and work-life.
2. DEEP TISSUE MASSAGE
This method also relieves tension, though the relaxation component you’d expect from a Swedish massage is not present.
“As the name implies, the deep muscles and fascia — a type of connective tissue — are the targets of a deep tissue massage,” says Samantha Gries a physical therapist at InStep Physical Therapy & Running Center. “This type of massage generally uses more intense pressure compared to other massages.”
When getting a deep tissue massage, be prepared for discomfort, but at the same time you don’t want the session to be too painful. Communicating your pressure preferences is key.
3. SPORTS MASSAGE
Similar to deep tissue, sports massage is designed specifically with athletes in mind. It uses a wide variety of techniques to address specific pain and muscle tension brought on by sports.
“Sports massage enhances performance and prolongs a sports career by helping to prevent injury, reduce pain and swelling in the body, relax the mind, increase flexibility and dramatically improve recovery rates,” notes Quinn. “Sports massage is also highly effective in aiding the rapid recovery of an athlete from an injury by encouraging greater kinesthetic awareness, and in turn promoting the body’s natural immune function.”
4. TRIGGER POINT MASSAGE
This form addresses specific areas of the muscles that have formed knots and are restricting blood flow. It involves pressing on a specific area to release the tension and is a great alternative for when foam rolling or at-home massage remedies are no longer working.
“A trigger point is a taut band of muscle tissue — commonly referred to as a knot — that interferes with normal blood flow and is painful when pressed on,” explains Gries. “The goal of a trigger point massage is to help these taut bands of muscle tissue to relax and restore appropriate blood supply.”
MAKING THE RIGHT CHOICE
The right type of massage for runners depends on your current needs and goals for recovery. “The purpose of a massage depends on the presence of an injury, the cause of the injury, where the runner is in his/her training cycle and the runner’s individual response and preference to the different types of massage,” says Gries. “Since all runners have different preferences, different responses to the types of massage, and stress different areas of the body while running, there is not one type of massage that’s best for all runners.”
Life would be easier if there were a one-size-fits all answer; because you aren’t a cookie-cutter runner, you should consider the technique of each type of massage to choose the one that is best for you.
READ MORE > A FOOLPROOF POST-MARATHON RECOVERY PLAN
WHAT TO KNOW BEFORE YOUR MASSAGE
There are a few important things you should do to get the most out of the experience.
“Prior to getting a massage, warming the muscles up slightly is ideal; not very many people do this, but warming up with a light jog or brisk walk allows the massage therapist the ability to quickly begin therapeutic work, making less ‘desensitizing’ work necessary to increase pliability of the muscle and tendon fibers,” explains Davis. “Think of your muscles like gum; the warmer they are, the more pliable they are, and easier to work with and you’ll get more bang for your buck out of your massage session.”
Additionally, Quinn says you should be prepared to give your therapist as much information as possible — about any injuries or soreness and your current training regimen — so they can provide the best treatment possible. To avoid injury, do your workout for the day before your massage, so your muscles can recover afterward.
Another key piece of advice that you’ll hear is to hydrate. For runners, hydration is key — massage or not — so make sure your fluid intake the day of is adequate. Proper hydration is important to flush out any toxins released from your muscles during the massage. After the massage, hydration is still key, and can help reduce soreness. Follow any post-massage instructions your therapist provides.
“It is important to drink plenty of water to facilitate normal blood circulation and to assist with maintaining muscle health after the massage,” notes Gries. “Since soreness may be present for 24–72 hours after a massage, be careful when scheduling a massage around a race or key workouts.”
To get proper rest, Davis suggests getting a massage in the evening so you can go home, take a warm shower and go to sleep, giving the muscles time to relax and recover overnight before any workouts the next day.