Massage shouldn't be the missing component in your mountain bike training

Bobby Julich of USA receives a massage from Boguslaw Madejak of Poland during stage 13 of the 1997 Tour de France  Credit: Mike Powell/Allsport
European coaches and off-road cyclists have long appreciated the merits of massage, incorporating massage regularly into their training and competition schedules.

But, massage has traditionally been misrepresented and misunderstood in North America. This is unfortunate because massage can be one of the techniques that separates elite cyclist from less-than-elite.

The integrated cyclist simultaneously aware of body, mind and spirit tends to perform better than the fragmented being. When combined with proper training, balanced nutrition, and a positive attitude, massage can be an excellent conditioning, psychological, and recovery tool.

The list of benefits many off-road cyclists attribute to massage is many and varied it's no wonder it's become one of the tools necessary to train properly and compete. Though many cyclists are still learning about the benefits of massage, more and more of them are using massage to enhance their training, improve performance and help solve muscle problems. Here are just a few of the ways massage helps maintain optimal performance.

Muscle maintenance: Massage during training is said to help off-road cyclists recover faster from intense training schedules and to increase training potential.

Regular massage makes for healthier muscles. Manual massage also aids the venous and lymphatic return and prevents stasis in the capillaries of the muscles. There is an increase of blood flow as well as an increase in the interchange of substances between the blood and the tissue cells.

Secondary effects include an increase in peripheral blood flow and a decrease in the swelling of muscle cells. In general, massage is used for relief of pain, relaxation of muscle tension, improvement of circulation, reduction of swelling, and to help stretch the muscles.

Pre-competition massage: Preparatory massage before competition theoretically increases or decreases the excitability of the nerve cells depending on the type, duration, and intensity of the massage. In addition, massage proponents say it warms the muscles, joints, and ligaments, thus protecting against micro injury.

This type of massage focuses on stretching and warming-up the ligaments and tendons of the limbs. Connective tissue does not have its own blood supply, so it tends to warm-up more slowly than muscle. Relaxed muscle allows for more blood flow to the muscles, tendons and ligaments. It also helps calm down the cyclist who is afflicted with pre-race anxiety and muscle tension.

Post-competition massage: A post-event massage helps eliminate the effects of fatigue. It reduces soreness and tension in muscles, while maintaining flexibility and elasticity in the muscles, tendons and ligaments.

Restorative massage after competition is said to speed muscle recovery two to three times faster than passive rest, because it promotes blood and lymph flow. It may even help remove lactic acid removal if it occurs within the first 15 to 20 minutes after exercise.

During hard off-road cycling, microtrauma occurs in the muscle cells. In addition, there is a bit of swelling of the muscle tissue and massage helps reduce it. Usually a combination of deep longitudinal strokes to stimulate blood flow; jostling or shaking to relax the muscles; and cross-fiber massage is used to prevent buildup of adhesions, relieve pain and stiffness, and smooth out trigger points that have flared up due to training or racing.

A few years ago, a study was completed on the effects of massage at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.

A group of competitive cyclists pedaled to exhaustion. Half the group then rested for ten minutes; the other half received ten minutes of massage. They were then asked to do 50 knee extensions on an exercise machine that tested leg strength. The researchers found that the cyclists in the massage groups leg quadriceps muscles were 11 percent stronger compared to those that rested for ten minutes.

Injury repair: For cyclists with injuries, massage can provide a greater range of movement and help speed the healing process in the injured muscle. In addition, it can help reduce emotional stress that comes with inactivity.

Massage should not be applied to the injured tissue for 48 to 72 hours after the initial trauma or when the swelling and pain have substantially subsided. The three main contraindications to massage are deep muscle trauma, surface abrasions, and tendonitis.

With the increased blood and lymph movement, massage increases nutrition to joints and muscles while hastening the elimination of swelling and inflammatory waste products in the muscles. The primary ways that lymph moves through the body is through deep breathing, muscular movement or massage.

Massage pressure can help stimulate the lymphatic vessels when exercise is impossible. Massage helps maintain muscle tone and can help delay muscular atrophy resulting from time off the bicycle.

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