Athletes can't take their bodies for granted if they want them to perform at peak levels. That's why it's not uncommon to see athletic trainers, physical therapists, and massage therapists lining the sidelines at sporting events, ready to step in and help coax each athlete's body to do its job. Before and after games, matches, or races, athletes often spend time with those same wellness professionals in a locker room or physical therapy area.
But what do wellness pros actually do to benefit first-class athletes? One common application used for injury prevention and treatment, as well as general health maintenance, is sports massage. Sports massage is a therapeutic technique-no soft music, dim lighting, or aromatherapy candles required. Instead, the goal is to guide the muscles, joints, ligaments, tendons, and other body parts to perform better, recover from injury faster, and last longer.
Sports hobbyists and topflight athletes alike can benefit from sports massage, because the massage therapist approaches each body differently. Whether you're a twice-a-week runner with a stiff knee or a professional figure skater with a pulled hamstring, targeted massage can result in significant improvements. Massage therapists who work with athletes must understand the specific physiological needs of various sports, including muscles that are called upon often and those that tend to be weak or injured. They must also be able to assess specific bodies to find weaknesses and tight areas that should be addressed through sports massage.
Sports massage is commonly administered:
Pre-event: Athletes must warm up properly before competing, and sports massage can be part of that warm up. Massage can loosen tight muscles and enhance blood circulation, decreasing the time it takes an athlete to get "in the zone" once the competition begins. Depending on the sport, the massage therapist can aim to relax or stimulate relevant muscles.
Mid-event: Muscles can cramp or spasm through intense activity. Having a massage therapist on hand to quickly work out the kinks or stop the spasm can mean an athlete can finish competing, maybe even coming out stronger than before. For instance, a football quarterback might get a quick massage for his throwing shoulder between quarters or while his team is on defense.
Post-event: Just as athletes need to warm up, they also need to cool down after an event. Stopping abruptly at the end of a rigorous exercise period can result in muscle spasm and lactic acid buildup, meaning more soreness the next day. Post-event massage therapy can relieve soreness and increase blood flow to tight, fatigued muscles. During this post-game massage, the athlete can also conduct a physical check-in: Does anything hurt more than it should? How did the body perform today? What areas could benefit from further training, physical therapy, a more in-depth massage, or even first-aid treatment before the next game or event?
Beyond the time immediately surrounding an intensive competition or practice, sports massage is valuable as a maintenance regimen. Athletes can get a full-length massage once a week or every two weeks, for instance, with the goal of improving range of motion and muscle flexibility, or of combating muscle imbalances that could lead to injury. In terms of injury recovery and rehabilitation, gentle, skilled massage can speed healing and reduce discomfort by increasing circulation to the affected area and relieving swelling and tension. However, once an injury is in the picture, it's always a good idea to speak with a doctor before beginning a massage treatment regimen.
Sam Stout is a former massage therapist, now currently working as a senior Internet marketing strategist for online marketing leader Prospect Genius.
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