Sports massage is a term that you may well have heard thrown around in magazines or at club training, which can initially conjure up images of candles and whale music while a beautiful masseur lightly releases the tension in your muscles. Unfortunately this is about as far from the truth as you can get, a sports massage normally involves being taken into the spare bedroom of someone’s flat, or dumped onto a treatment table at the finish line of a race, where someone inflicts so much pain on you that many people compare it to childbirth. However as triathletes we are no strangers to pain, and these beatings should become a regular part of your training ritual.
So what is the purpose of the pain? Why should we pay someone good money to beat us within an inch of our lives? The benefit is two fold, injury prevention/treatment and addressing imbalances. Muscles will slowly tighten over weeks, months and years of training until they become so tight that they overwork another muscle group, pull on a tendon or trap a nerve, all of which can result in substantial time sat at home unable to train, every athlete’s worst nightmare. As someone who has spent the last three years battling injury, I’m trying to help people recognise how important a regular sports massage is to your training.
When you first visit a new masseur they will ask you a few questions about any injuries you’re suffering from along with a brief history of your health to allow them to treat you effectively. They will then conduct some flexibility tests which normally involve a lot of sucking of teeth in my experience, before they knuckle down with the hard work.
Normally from the initial assessment and some prodding they’ll have a good idea of what’s causing the pain. It may be that your knee pain actually comes from your glutes or your plantar problems can be traced to your hamstring, the whole kinetic chain that runs through your body is incredibly complex and it requires an experienced professional to locate where the problem is coming from. Once they’ve located the problem, they can begin the treatment.
How painful they are depends on how supple you are, if you have been training for years and never had one, you may want to find something hard to bite into for your first visit, but if you make monthly or bi-monthly visits to the treatment table the experience will be altogether more bearable. The methods of sports masseurs vary between each individual, but primarily involve applying pressure to different areas to relax and release the muscle. Often the pain of the treatment is followed by a brief moment of ecstasy as the muscle releases, before they move onto the next area and the ordeal begins again.
How much pressure they apply depends on the severity of the injury and your own tolerance for pain, I’ve had it before when a masseur has rubbed oils to my IT band which has made me whince, “You won’t like it when I get the elbow in then!” he quipped. The experienced therapist will use conversation as a means of judging how much pain you are in and how much pressure they can apply.
If you arrange treatment for a specific injury then the vast majority, if not all of the session will be spent working on that area, however if you simply ask for a tune up they will spend more time working on various areas of the body, focusing on areas that are worked heavily by your sport of choice. Prevention is better than cure, and even if you are not experiencing any significant tightness or pain, a regular massage will help keep things supple and improve your performance.
However sports massage does have its limitations, sometimes the cause of the tightness is so deep within the muscle that trigger point therapy may be able to get where a masseur’s elbow cannot, and some people even report acupuncture has helped them overcome injuries. Both of these methods are considered alternative treatment by medical bodies and results cannot be guaranteed.
Sports massage is invaluable, but there is a lot that you can do to help keep muscles supple in you day to day life. A thorough warm up and cool down for every training session is very important, it’s tempting simply to collapse over the line or through the door and spend the rest of the day horizontal, but time spent gently turning the legs over followed by some gentle stretching will help prevent injury.
You should also enlist the help of a foam roller to release tension after hard training sessions. Foam rolling techniques warrant a separate article themselves but the basics are moving the foam roller up and down the tight muscle until you find the most painful spot and holding it for 30 seconds, or until the muscle releases. This will go a long way to preventing injury, but the occasional services of a professional who can reach deep into the tissue are still important.
After three years of relentless training and racing, I have since spent three years battling injury caused by neglecting sports massage and foam rolling, and hope to save my athletes/readers from the same fate. If it’s something you’ve been meaning to get round to, now is the time to take the plunge to help avoid an injury blighted season.