What is Sports Massage?

What is Sports Massage? 

What is sports massage good for? 


Catherine Nelson, LMT, CST, CKTS 


Most Americans have heard the term "sports massage," and it seems pretty straightforward. And in one sense, it is. But in this post, let's dive in a little deeper into how sports massage is different than regular massage, what sports massage helps with, who should use sports massage, and when to use sports massage.  


Sports massage has been used throughout human history and throughout many different cultures around the world, just as hundreds of other styles of massage. However, sports massage is probably most famous for its use by the ancient Greeks during the olympics.  


The hands-on techniques used on the athletes before, during, and after competition were highly prized, highly regarded treatments. These treatments were considered as important, or perhaps more important, than sleep, diet, and medical care to keep the athletes at peak performance. 


Experimentation over the centuries has documented well the undeniable benefits an athlete will experience when including sports massage as a part of his training and performance routine.  



How is Sports Massage Different? 


Sports massage is primarily a philosophy, rather than a technique. What that means is the actual massage techniques and strokes used in sports massage are not much different than those used in Classic or Swedish massage. The major difference is how and when those individual strokes are used and how they are sequenced together. 


The timing of the event matters a lot in sports massage. Sports massage is broken down into types--or more accurately "phases." Depending on the reference, some sources will list three phases, some four, and those phases aren't always the same.  


However, for our purposes, we will break it down like this: 





Off Season 


You'll notice I have five phases here. Most sources I've seen over the years don't include "mid-event," but it is its own phase, even if under utilized in our country.  


To make things even more complicated, these phases sometimes break down even further. For example, "pre-event" can be anytime from one day to one minute before an event. The underlying philosophy of a pre-event treatment will be the same in both instances, but the specific strokes used will be very different.  



This is the massage treatment an athlete will receive in the minutes or hours prior to an event. The goal of this treatment is to ready the muscles, the connective tissue, and the blood for activity. There is an emphasis on energizing strokes, strokes to significantly increase blood flow, and techniques to soften the tissue.  


All of this must be done in moderation, however. As any athlete knows, significant changes to the tissue will change the way a limb moves or responds, and game day is not the day to be adjusting to those changes.  



This phase is often overlooked in America, because very few athletic teams and few athletes have massage therapists on the field with them. This is a much more common practice in other countries, and massage therapists are much more highly valued in other countries.  


I know some teams and organizations do have massage therapists on staff to work with athletes, but most have trainers. Trainers have lots of other knowledge and know some massage, which is not at all the same as an individual trained extensively in massage therapy.  


The mid-event treatment is performed on athletes who have completed one part of the competition and will compete again. So the goal here is to keep active muscles active, retain the warmth and the blood flow, and prevent the cooling off and recovery process to begin. As the body begins to cool down and go into the recovery phase, the athlete will have much less power and energy for the next portion of the competition, and will be much more likely to be injured. This is why you'll often see athletes jumping around and keeping their bodies moving. A skilled sports massage therapist can help the athlete achieve the same thing without the athlete expending the energy to do it. 



The post-event treatment ideally takes place within a few minutes to a few hours of the end of competition. This treatment is designed to usher the athlete into the recovery phase and accelerate the body's natural recovery process. The techniques used are designed to increase circulation, sooth and relax the muscles, and bring the athlete's energy level down from the high of competition.  



The training phase is different for every athlete. Some athletes train all year for a single event. Others train for a few months and then compete for a season. And some athletes compete multiple times a year. I have worked with professional triathletes who are in "competition" all year long, because they schedule triathlons all year long, which means they are training at the same time as they are competing.  


During the training phase, the goal of the sports massage therapy is to help the athlete recover more quickly, build muscle more quickly, and train harder, while significantly reducing the risk of injury.  


Because the training phase looks so different for each athlete, it's really important to work with a seasoned, knowledgeable therapist. It's the therapist's job to factor in your training schedule, your training activities, your competition goals, and a lot more to put together a therapy plan specific to you so that it will actually help you. 


Off Season 

Just like the training phase, the off season is different for each athlete. Some athletes have long off seasons in which training essentially drops off to very little, while others have no off season at all.  


During the off season, the focus is rehabilitating any injuries or nagging points of pain or dysfunction, making any structural changes that need to be made--perhaps to the hip to affect stride or to the shoulder to affect throwing--and to generally maintain the connective tissue pliability the athlete has achieved. As activity slows down, the body's tissues tend to shorten and stick together, which makes the first few weeks of training kind of tough on top of any muscle density loss that has occurred. Skillful massage can help stop all of these things from happening during the off season.  


Benefits of Sports Massage  


The benefits of sports massage are not much different than the benefits of general wellness massage. However, in sports massage, the therapist will leverage the benefits most needed during each phase to the maximum advantage of the athlete. This is why the techniques used in each phase are so important, because each technique has different benefits.  


  • Improved Fluid Circulation 

  • Flush waste and toxins out of muscles 

  • Bring fresh, healing blood into muscles 

  • Support immune function by flushing lymph system 

  • Muscular Relaxation 

  • Decrease tension 

  • Return muscle to normal tone 

  • General Relaxation 

  • Induce the relaxation response 

  • Decrease oxygen consumption, heart rate, and skeletal muscle activity 

  • Increase skin resistance and alpha brain waves 

  • Functional Separation of Muscle and Connective Tissue 

  • Break up and prevent adhesions between muscle tissue, connective tissue, and other tissue 

  • Increase fluid movement, range of motion, and promote functionality 

  • Formation of Strong, Mobile Scar Tissue 

  • Increase range of motion and functionality 

  • Connective Tissue Normalization 

  • Prevent stiffness, pain, dysfunction, and immobility 

  • Increased Mental Alertness and Clarity 

  • Increased cognitive function 

  • Decreased anxiety 

  • Deactivation of Trigger Points 

  • Trigger points cause restricted range of motion, weakening in the contractile force of the muscle, tension in nearby muscles, and stress when opposing muscles are forced to compensate 

  • Greater Energy 

  • Conserve body/muscle energy and prevent energy depletion 

  • Faster Recovery 

  • Reduce muscle soreness and stiffness 

  • Accelerated healing of damaged tissues 

  • Relaxation and lengthening of tight muscles 

  • Pain Reduction 

  • Interrupt pain cycles 

  • Cause release of endorphins 

  • Injury Prevention 

  • Prevent pain and dysfunction that cause poor or improper body movement and mechanics 

  • Strengthen and condition muscles 

  • Prevent Muscle Atrophy 

  • Help preserve and maintain muscle tone 


Check out this short video to learn how muscles work LINK: .  


Uses of Sports Massage 


Most people wonder, "Is sports massage good for me?" Or, "Is sports massage just for athletes?" 


The short answers are, "Yes" and "No." 


As mentioned earlier in this post, sports massage is more a philosophy (a treatment philosophy) than a set of unique massage strokes. That treatment philosophy is to bring maximum physical benefit to a person doing a physical task. Most sports massage therapists work with athletes, but how many people have a job that is extremely physical? 


At one time in my practice, I worked almost exclusively with athletes. I worked with a high school soccer team, collage athletes, many marathoners and triathletes, and I've even worked with an olympian.  


Today my practice is much more diverse, as I am no longer able to travel to patients' homes, travel with a team, or consistently be on site for games and events as I once did. Today, a significant portion of my practice is regular folks who have very physical jobs. These are people who work in the trades, like plumbers, electricians, and drywallers, and people who spend most of the day walking or lifting, like mail carriers and delivery drivers. 


Over the years of working on those folks, I've found I have to treat them like I treated athletes during competition for so many years. Someone who spends most of the day, every day, swinging a hammer needs shoulder work much like a baseball player does. And someone who spends all day carrying boxes in and out of a delivery truck needs hip and back work a lot like a runner does.  


Sports massage is good for anyone who would benefit from the effects of certain massage techniques used at specific times depending on the physical demands of that person.  


It would be extremely beneficial for anyone just starting an exercise program, because it will significantly reduce muscle soreness, speed up the muscle building process, and prevent injury. (Injuries are most likely to occur right in the beginning or right near the end, very close to competition.) 


Sports massage would be really good for anyone who does intense workouts like CrossFit, kickboxing, HIIT, TRX, or similar. The more intense the workouts the more likely there is to be muscle strain, which is pushing a muscle past its natural, current ability. If this does not result in an injury, it will cause a decrease in range of motion, flexibility, and freedom of movement. Sports massage therapy helps prevent and reverse all of that. 


And sports massage is good for people who have really physical jobs, as well as anyone planning to train for and compete in any kind of sport or event. But you don't have to be an athlete! 


You do, however, need a skilled and knowledgeable massage therapist. Probably a fair many of the people reading this post have paid for a sports massage and realize now they got scammed, because it wasn't really a sports massage. If you tell your massage therapist you want a sport massage, and the therapist doesn't ask any questions about when your event is, your training schedule, what type of event it is, then it's not a sports massage. And a lot of these places charge extra for sports massage! 


Find a new therapist, one who knows what he or she is doing and doesn't upcharge for "speciality" types of massage. 





Sports massage is a treatment philosophy more than a type of massage. The massage strokes and techniques used in sports massage are the same as those used in many other types of massage, including Classic or Swedish massage. The difference with sports massage is the timing of the treatment compared to the timing of your event, game, or activity, as well as your training or workout schedule.  


Sports massage is not widely taught in massage school, and if the program does cover sports massage, it's not covered with much depth, so most massage therapists have a poor understanding of sports massage. This is why it's so important for you as the consumer to be well-informed, and to know which questions to ask of your therapist.  


Every massage therapist can perform a regular full-body massage when he or she graduates massage school, but if you are looking for more than that from your massage treatments, you need to find a therapist that is educated, knowledgeable, experienced, and can answer your questions in a way you understand. That can take time, but it's time well spent.  


Now that you know what sports massage is, what sports massage is good for, and if sports massage is good for you, you'll be able to find a therapist who can provide you the best treatment and avoid paying ridiculous upcharges for no benefit to you. 



Catherine Nelson, LMT, CST, CKTS, is a long-time massage therapist with a long and varied background in Western medicine. She specializes in CranioSacral Therapy for PTSD and anxiety, medical massage therapy for injury rehabilitation, and sports massage therapy for all phases of training and competition. She can be reached directly at Catherine@DelSolCommunityWellness.com.  




2008 Blue Mesa Ct., Loveland, CO 80538  |  (970) 218-7179  | www.DelSolCommunityWellness.com 

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