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Sports massage or sports massage therapy has been around since the early 1920s when ‘The Flying Finn’ Paavo Nurmi was reputed to have used it at the 1924 Paris Olympics to win five gold medals. Jack Meagher is acknowledged as the father of sports massage in the USA using the Meagher Method developed in the 1950s for NFL players and equestrian athletes.

Sports massage can be divided into four types: pre-event, post-event, maintenance, and rehabilitation. The athlete’s body responds differently to each type of massage, and therapists have a variety of techniques they can use to achieve the desired results.

In this article, we will examine how sports massages are used, their benefits, a brief overview of the techniques that are used, and how they help athletes improve their performance and recover faster.

The Five Main Massage Techniques Used In Sports Massage Therapy

There are various massage techniques, each with its own purpose. Sports massage often makes use of these methods to help improve an athlete’s performance.  While there are 11 different massage techniques and variations available to massage therapists, the most commonly used are the following:

  • Effleurage (stroking) – This can be done with the hands, fingers, elbows, forearms, and thumbs in a series of sliding circular strokes and is usually the first technique used. It relaxes the muscles, identifies trigger points and tender areas, improves blood flow, stretches out fascia and tissue, and prepares the body for petrissage.
  • Petrissage (kneading) – This technique involves ‘picking up the muscle using the hands, palms, or knuckles and then manipulating the muscle to relieve soreness, remove lactic acid, break up muscular knots, treat delayed onset muscle soreness, and improve recovery.
  • Tapotement (Rhythmic Striking) – This technique uses light, brisk rhythmic strikes with the ‘knife edge’ or ulnar part of the hand to invigorate the body. It is used on the soft muscular areas and improves local blood flow, stimulating nerve endings and reflex muscle contraction.
  • Friction – The famous scene in ‘The Karate Kid’ where Mr. Miygai rubs his hands together to create heat to help Daniel recover from a bruised knee is a perfect example of this technique. The therapist will rub their hands together to create friction and heat, which is applied to break up scar tissue and increase lymphatic and blood flow.
  • Vibration – Also known as shaking, this technique uses rapid ‘back-and-forth’ movements with the fingertips, side, or heel of the hand to loosen up muscles.
  • Now let’s look at the four types of sports massage and which techniques are applied to each

Pre-Event Sports Massage

The purpose of this massage is to prepare athletes for competitions or training sessions. Pre-event massage stimulates blood flow and nutrients to the muscles, reduces muscle tension, and prepares the body for the upcoming event.

This massage is performed to prevent the risk of serious injury to the athlete and to prepare them for action. It is typically done about four hours before the event for 10-15 minutes and involves light massage like effleurage, friction, tapotement, and vibration – but not petrissage.

Pre-event sports massage therapy may be administered much earlier, from up to 72 hours before the event. This will also be a light session as a deeper massage would leave the muscles sore, which is not practical or desirable for an athlete so close to a competition.

During this type of massage, effleurage is used to stretch the main active muscles and promote nutrient flow, friction is used to warm up the skin and promote blood circulation, and tapotement is used to stimulate nerves and muscles.

There may also be ‘inter-event’ massage where athletes will receive massages at half-time or between events, or during a game that will remove lactic acid, warm up muscles where an athlete has been inactive for some time, alleviate stress and tension or even assist with light injuries.

Post-Event Sports Massage

This therapy should be applied after the athlete has completed their event or game, ideally within 72 hours. It usually lasts for 15-20 minutes, but the duration may vary depending on the intensity and severity of the athlete’s condition.

A delay of up to 72 hours is necessary because athletes must rehydrate, recuperate, stretch, and cool down before receiving a post-event massage. Athletes can also utilize ice baths to aid recuperation after extremely rigorous events.

Post-event massage will start with effleurage and then move to the deep tissue massage with petrissage, friction, tapotement, and vibration as this will stimulate the removal of lactic acid, increase the flow of recovery nutrients to the affected areas, identify pain trigger points in the muscles and can reduce the effect of DOMS or Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness.

As you can see, all five massage techniques are common in post-event sports massage. Athletes’ specific body types, recovery rates, and metabolism will determine the duration and pressure of each treatment.

Maintenance Sports Massage

This massage is used post-training, and between events, to keep the athlete’s body relaxed. It can help reduce inflammation and move lactic acid and other waste products out, allowing for faster recovery and improved performance before the next event.

Maintenance massage also allows trainers and therapists to prevent injury by identifying potential risk areas in the body.

This type of sports massage plays a vital part in athlete preparation and recovery as it increases flexibility and improves motion as well as boosting nutrient delivery to the muscles. It is also a valuable tool for relaxing the athlete physically and mentally.

Sports Massage For Rehabilitation

Injuries in professional and amateur sports are unavoidable. In addition to medical assistance, massage therapy for rehabilitation plays a vital role in the athlete’s recovery from injury and helps to reduce the risk of re-injury.

Massage therapists will work with the medical staff to implement a recovery program that includes various massage options. 

Effleurage is usually used to relax the muscles and improve blood flow to the injured muscles, but deep tissue petrissage may not be used afterward due to its discomfort.

The therapist may use techniques that stimulate recovery like tapotement, friction, and vibration, which promote the removal of toxins, scar tissue, and improved nutrient and blood flow to the affected area, as these are critical for recovery.

Rehabilitation involves removing scar tissue and reducing pain, stiffness, and soreness caused by the injured muscle. It allows an athlete to recommence training faster and boost recovery, so they can get back in the game much quicker.

Sports massage for rehabilitation also has some mental benefits. It alleviates anxiety, improves moods and sleep, and reduces general muscle tension and spasms, creating a complete healing therapy that works body and mind.