Sports Massage: Beyond Just Feeling Better (Although There’s That, Too)

Last week I posted an interview with Jenny Knight from Hand & Stone Massage and Facial Spa, we were talking about how massage can help enhance your athletic performance. With Madison Marathon right around the corner, I thought this would be a good time to invite Jenny to be a guest blogger in the Active Zone. So, here’s Jenny…

“The will to win means nothing without the will to prepare.”
-Juma Ikangaa, 1989 NYC Marathon winner


When athletes and fitness enthusiasts think of sports massage, most are aware that pro sports teams and world-class competitors utilize it for training and recovery at elite levels of competition. What that means specifically to the serious recreational athlete, however, is sometimes just a vague acknowledgement of its existence (“it must be good for athletes because they all use it; I’d try it too if I could ever get around to it…”).

The benefits of sports massage are many and extend into other spheres of activity beyond athletics (we take the same bodies that we use for running or ultimate frisbee into our desk jobs or long commutes, after all). We’ll be covering some of the most essential benefits of sports massage across several discussions, but for the moment we’ll focus on a semi-neglected topic for many sports and fitness enthusiasts: the importance of balanced muscle development, and the role a sports massage therapist can play in transitioning your physique from a less-balanced to a more-balanced state.

For the moment we’re speaking less about the physical ability to balance (e.g. on one leg), and more about development on the muscular level. Athletes know the importance of developing strength in service to a specific series of movements, and that an increase in strength will produce a parallel increase in performance. While this is true to a certain extent, many athletes are unaware that the strengthening of muscles in an imbalanced manner can actually inhibit performance, whether by restricting range of motion, inadvertently weakening a reciprocal muscle which results in compensation by other tissues and structures (distorting the proper technique for a high speed softball pitch, for example), or creating stresses on tissues or joints that can lead to inflammation and injury.

There are different levels of imbalance or asymmetry of development; on the macro level, a right-handed tennis player has a different set of physical requirements than a swimmer, runner, or biker, in terms of balancing the development of muscle groups from one side of their body to the other. However, regardless of the specific sport or fitness focus, all physical movement comes down to sets of muscles that contract in opposite but complementary directions.

When one half of a muscle set is overdeveloped (via strengthening), it tends to be shorter and tighter, while the reciprocal muscle stays in an elongated, weaker state. This can occur when a relatively narrow range of repeated movements is required to perform a sport (such as running or biking, which require less varied or lateral movement than soccer or hockey). The body will compensate for weaker muscles by shifting the work to other areas, but over time the imbalances can lead to pain or injury as other soft tissue such as ligaments and fascia (the sheath around muscles) are strained by the compensations. In this way, it’s possible to run quite well for quite a while and still be straining the body toward acute or long-term injury to soft tissue and/or joints and their surrounding structures.

A good sports massage therapist can both guide you toward balanced muscular development and help you reverse existing damage due to scar tissue or adhesions. They can identify the muscular imbalances, if you are not yet aware of them, and they can also locate existing scar tissue and assist in breaking down the toughened fibers that restrict movement. Helping the overdeveloped, shortened muscle to relax into its natural length can be accomplished by myofascial release as well as passive stretches and other relaxation techniques. When the shortened muscle is relaxed, it relieves strain on surrounding connective tissue and also aids engagement and strengthening of the weaker reciprocal muscle.

Actual strengthening of the weaker muscle will require additional training outside of the massage sessions, but repeated sessions with a sports massage therapist can directly improve the functional movement and soft tissue conditioning necessary to build balanced muscle performance. The key: it is never too late for sports massage therapy to improve or correct your athletic conditioning, and if you are able to include it in an ongoing training regimen, it can also help optimize your ability to train at higher levels with fewer setbacks.

Jenny Knight is the owner of Hand & Stone Massage and Facial Spa in Madison, WI.
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|Coming soon: Sports Massage and Optimizing Muscle Performance