Massage Therapy for Elite Athletes

Why more and more sports stars are turning to massage for its recuperative powers

In Western culture, we typically relate the art of massage to relaxation—the image of people on ‘spa days’ or relaxing in vacation resorts lying face down on a table for a half-hour or hour-long session as a reward to themselves. But the history of massage goes back to a time where its recuperative powers were the main attraction.

Going back to about the year 2500 BC, ancient Chinese writings describe the use of massage in treatment of illness and injury. Today, when used professionally, massage can be used to treat everything from pain in patients with cancer to musculoskeletal injuries and even stress and relaxation.

It stands to reason, therefore, that elite athletes who depend on optimal physical performance to make their living would utilize the modality. As recently as 10 years ago, studies concluded that the relationship between athletics and effective massage techniques was unproven at best.

Now, more and more physical therapists and certified trainers are becoming educated in different massage techniques, suggesting the art is gaining popularity among elite athletes. A rundown of potential benefits includes:

Increased range of motion. Sports massage therapy allows practitioners to target specific muscle-tendon junctions, allowing for considerable benefits in limited time frames. For example, one study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research demonstrated that even a 30-second massage could improve range of motion in the hip flexors.
Margaret Jones, PhD, of the American College of Sports Medicine demonstrated a trend of decreased muscle soreness in those athletes who received massages before or after practice sessions—or both.

Injury treatment and prevention. The word injury doesn’t conjure pleasant images for anyone, but elite athletes are particularly spooked by the concept. The effects on performance, preparation, and confidence can tarnish or undo weeks or even months of training.

But simply put, injuries hurt. And if the athletes continues to compete after sustaining an injury, the chances of doing further, potentially permanent damage increase accordingly. That’s why a May 2016 study from Oxford University suggesting massage therapy could be beneficial in improving the response to pain as of such interest in the athletic community.

Researchers analyzed 60 high-quality studies to determine the quality of massage therapy research and evidence for treating pain, function-related and health-related quality of life outcomes across all pain populations.

“Based on the evidence, massage therapy, compared to no treatment, should be strongly recommended as a pain management option,” read the researchers’ conclusion. “Massage therapy is weakly recommended for reducing pain, compared to other sham or active comparators, and improving mood and health-related quality of life, compared to other active comparators. Massage therapy safety, research challenges, how to address identified research gaps, and necessary next steps for implementing massage therapy as a viable pain management option are discussed.”

Meanwhile, researchers at McMaster University reported that massage following an intense workout actually caused muscles to enlarge and in turn, grow new mitochondria, the portion of cells that convert nutrients into energy. This leads to improved endurance by increasing the rate at which muscles utilize oxygen.

Increased energy and oxygen? Sounds like a dream come true for most athletes.

Beyond Muscles. Obviously, most of the benefits associated with massage—particularly in athletes—will deal with improved muscle performance. But it’s far from the only benefit.

Most people—athletes or otherwise—report such post-massage effects as reduced anxiety, relaxation, increased attentiveness, and improved mood after a massage. Meanwhile, various reports from the National Center for Biotechnology Information report that massage therapy can:

  • Reduces heart rate
  • Lowers blood pressure
  • Reduces recovery time after an injury
  • Rehabs an injury
  • Lowers anxiety
  • Improves mood
  • Increases blood flow throughout the body, bringing vital oxygen and nutrients all over
  • Relieves muscle pain and tension
  • Improves connective tissue healing, which promotes muscle elasticity
  • Stabilizes cortisol levels (a stress hormone, similar to adrenaline)
  • Improves muscle flexibility, which reduces and prevents injury

And we saved the best for last—according to the International Journal of Neuroscience, massage therapy can improve the quality of sleep.

Professional Advice

The benefits are becoming widely recognized, as suggested by articles on the super-competitive environment massage therapists must navigate in order to work with or become employed by professional sports teams. However, not all teams employ their own massage therapists, rather, athletes are often trusted to seek out and find their own therapists. If you want to work in professional sports as a massage therapist, persistence is key, as you are likely to hear dozens of rejections before getting a ‘yes’ or even a ‘maybe.’

Perhaps Vinny Aquilino said it best. Aquilino has completed a dozen seasons as the Miami Heat’s neuromuscular therapist, meaning he’s had the opportunity to work with athletes like Shaquille O’Neal, Dwyane Wade, and LeBron James. In an interview with Massage Magazine, Aquling recounted getting his start in sports massage.

“I started knocking on doors, lots of doors. I sent résumés and received plenty of rejections,” he told Massage Magazine. “I’d knock on the door, send a résumé, make a phone call and do it all again six months later.”

Persistence paid off for Aquilino—and until it does so for you, his advice is to never stop working.

“My advice would be to work hard at developing your craft, and take workshops and courses to increase your value.”

SOURCES: Massage Envy, Massage Magazine,