There is good reason massage therapists are part of an elite runner's entourage. And why the lines for a postrace massage seemingly extend for miles. A rubdown—even a deep, intense one—feels great. Runners report that massages help lessen muscle tension and improve range of motion, while also making them feel relaxed and rewarded for their hard efforts.
Yet despite massage's popularity and positive reputation, there's been little scientific evidence to support why athletes feel so good when they hop off the table. "It can be hard to merge basic science with alternative medicine," says Justin Crane, Ph.D., a McMaster University researcher who conducted some of the first objective studies on massage in 2012. Practitioners say massage relieves muscle soreness, promotes circulation, flushes toxins and lactic acid from the body, and eases joint strain—claims supported by centuries of anecdotal evidence from China, Sweden, and around the globe. But science hadn't confirmed just what massage actually achieves—until now. Recent research has sorted out what's true and what's not.
First, let's set the record straight: Science doesn't support some ingrained beliefs about massage. "It can't push toxins out of the muscles and into the bloodstream," says JoEllen Sefton, Ph.D., associate professor of kinesiology at Auburn University, who has practiced massage therapy. "There's no physiological way that can happen." Nor does it appear to flush lactic acid from muscles, says Crane, who analyzed muscle samples after subjects cycled to exhaustion and then received a 10-minute massage. "People assumed that because lactic acid feels burny, and massage reduces pain, then it must clear away lactic acid," he says.
The Happy News
What massage does do is apply moving pressure to muscles and other tissues such as tendons, ligaments and fascia (which sheaths muscles like a sausage casing). "That energy softens fascia tissue and makes clenched muscles relax," Sefton says. It also removes adhesions between fascia and muscles (places where the two stick together and restrict muscles' movement). That's especially great news for runners, who rely on limber joints and muscles for pain-free peak performance.