Massage was once widely regarded as a form of pampering for society’s upper crust, but no more.

While many Americans may still envision little more than the spirited kneading of an oiled, horizontal body, thousands of others—including scads of distance runners—have placed themselves in the healing hands of licensed massage therapists, who offer not only a powerful touch but a scientifically and anatomically based approach to flexibility, acceleration of recovery, and overall muscular maintenance. Massage, which dates back at least to the days of Caesar, promotes endorphin release, decreases soreness by forcefully clearing the waste products of physical exertion from within muscle cells, and both prevents new injuries and helps heal existing ones by increasing the flow of blood within muscles. Massage also promotes proper muscle and tendon functioning by increasing their mobility and range of motion.

“I’m a big advocate of massage therapy,” says Ryan Shay, the 2003 U.S. marathon and half marathon champion. “A good massage therapist knows how to do trigger-point work, or active release. It’s important for a massage therapist to be able to determine the source of muscle tightness, soreness or weakness. It’s also important for the massage therapist to incorporate some active release stretching when necessary to get muscles to relax or ‘let go’ in order to allow access to deeper muscle-tissue levels.”

Though scientific evidence is equivocal, a number of direct physical benefits of massage have been proposed. Pumping and kneading may open up elements of microcirculation (capillaries, small arteries and veins, lymphatic vessels), leading to the clearance of accumulated toxins, by-products of exercise—chiefly lingering lactic acid after an improper post-workout cool-down. Some athletes have reported a decrease in the frequency and intensity of delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS), post-workout complication resulting from eccentric muscle contractions. Massage may result in decreased muscle tension and greater flexibility, translating into stronger, more injury-resistant movers and levers capable of delivering more on race day. The massage action opens pores in tissue membranes, allowing nutrients to pass into muscles more easily while promoting the egress of toxins. Finally, massage can also break down scar tissue. In essence, it may accelerate processes that would otherwise occur slowly in the body, if at all; this is vitally important to those who train or work out daily and cannot afford to be hamstrung by chronic tightness or soreness. And, as underscored by Shay’s example, the special importance of active release therapy (ART) has come to light in recent years.

“Massage has definitely become much more mainstream,” says Tracy Steele of Atlanta, a sports massage therapist since 1988. “I don’t get nearly as many chuckles anymore when I say I’m a massage therapist.” Steele notes that whereas few, if any, colleges had massage therapists on staff a decade ago, access to massage has become commonplace among college athletes.

“In the early days my clientele was more the competitive runner, but now I get a lot of first-time marathoners,” Steele says, noting that most of the Team in Training groups advise regular massage. “I also work with a lot of the local high-school runners,” she says, “and this was surely not the case 10 years ago.”

An initial session with a good massage therapist begins with a relaxed interview that includes a complete medical history and centers on any muscle-related symptoms you’ve experienced recently; the therapist should ask you exactly what you hope to gain from massage. A good massage therapist will start by releasing tension from the entire body. This is usually done by starting in areas that are not the most sore, tender or tight.

“I’ve been to massage therapists who ask where my problem areas are and then go right to work on them, and not only does it hurt like hell, but the muscle never completely relaxes and the deeper tissues are ignored,” Shay says. “Also, the source of a problem is rarely located at the spot that hurts—there’s usually some type of chain reaction going on within the muscles.”

How often should you get a massage? It’s entirely up to you—and possibly your wallet; costs for sports massage range from about $35 to $45 per half hour. Massage is useful both before and after competitive events, although those new to massage should avoid having one the day before a race because of the possibility of mild soreness. Whenever possible, Shay gets a massage after every hard workout, or three times a week, with the frequency dropping to once a week or once every two weeks during training stints in places where finding a qualified therapist is difficult.

Shay suggests looking for a massage therapist who is trained in applied kinesiology, does trigger-point work, and is experienced in working with athletes. Local running clubs and area coaches are good sources of referrals to qualified practitioners.

Given the range of potential benefits, all serious runners should consider incorporating massage therapy into their training regimens—and hitting the table before problems strike, not after.

By Kevin Beck
As featured in the March 2004 issue of Running Times Magazine