In knead of recovery

Massage promotes good circulation and elasticity and helps dissipate the accumulation of metabolic waste.
Running demands a lot of your body, and sport-specific massage can help your muscles recover faster, increase your flexibility and decrease injuries.

You've just done a 5K- or 10K-road race and you're not feeling great, or maybe you notice you're not recovering as easily after your daily run. Perhaps you're feeling tired instead of energized after a workout. It sounds like you need an oil change -- that's the way Jim Wharton, a musculoskeletal therapist, sees it.

Wharton, known as "the mechanic" because he's cured the injuries of everyone from Olympic athletes and world-record holders to weekend warriors, says that feeling fatigued and achy after a run doesn't necessarily mean there's anything wrong.

"Maybe you just need to flush out the metabolic waste that builds up from exercise," he says. "It's kind of like changing the oil in your car's engine. Once in a while you have to do it."

But how do you do it? It's as easy as getting a massage.

Demands of running

When you run, you send 1.5 to five times your body weight hammering down through your legs to your feet at more than 110 foot strikes per mile -- that's 5,000 foot strikes per hour. "Running places an impressive demand on your body," Wharton says. "But your body is remarkable in its shock-absorbing abilities, and while running provides a total-body workout and a superior cardiovascular workout, muscles, bones, tendons and ligaments track the same path repeatedly."

Because of this repetition, he says, 70 percent of all runners develop overuse injuries. The knees are the most common sites, followed by feet, hips, upper legs and thighs and lower back. Contributing to injury is a runner's unwillingness to back off when his body signals irritation, causing cumulative stress.

Benefits of massage

Massage is the practice of applying pressure or vibration to the soft tissues of the body, including muscles, connective tissue, tendons, ligaments and joints. Therapeutic massage therapy can heal injury, relieve psychological stress, manage pain, improve circulation and relieve tension.

While massage isn't a panacea for runners, it enhances the performance potential of the muscles, which increases flexibility and decreases the potential for injury. If you aren't injured and are looking for a simple way to help your performance, Wharton suggests self-massage -- if a muscle feels tense, stretch and knead the muscle the way you would knead bread. Doing so helps you recover faster so you'll be able to go back and run again the next day.

"When a muscle is tense, the tension keeps building," Wharton says. "Massage helps take that tension away. It promotes good circulation and elasticity and helps dissipate the accumulation of metabolic waste."

Bo Walker, a licensed massage therapist, certified sports massage and neuromuscular therapist, agrees. "What massage does is increase oxygenated blood flow into the muscles. As you do that, the oxygen and nutrients brought by the bloodstream nourish the cells and flush out the metabolic waste product. As part of the training regimen, stretching, toning and massage are all great supports and help you perform to your maximum potential."

Types of massage

But it's hard to decide what kind of massage you need as an athlete, or where to start. Specialized sports massage deals with injuries common to a particular activity, such as running. Stretching and massage diminishes or eliminates shin splints, groin pulls and plantar fasciitis. Neuromuscular massage therapy helps clean out the muscle fibers and keeps them from adhering to one other. In any repetitive movement activity, muscles heat up causing them to begin to adhere to one another, creating friction or tension at the joints. A massage can help the muscles slide and glide next to each other without adhering.

There are many different types of massage, Swedish, deep tissue, hot stone, all the things you find at spas, but many of these don't cater to the needs of athletes -- although they may feel good. Be sure to seek out different types of sport-specific massage and therapists that can meet the needs of an athlete.

Swedish massage, for example, is good for flushing the body of toxins, but focuses on the whole body as opposed to the lower extremities that may need more attention if running has caused an injury.

Look for a massage therapist who encourages range of motion exercises prior to massage. By stimulating blood flow and warming the muscle, the massage will be more effective by allowing the therapist to go deeper into the tissue. If a therapist starts by massaging tense muscles, there's no way reach deeply except by using elbows and wrists, which will irritate the muscle. (This is why you sometimes hear someone say, "Oh, I had this massage and it's killing me.")

Massage should not harm the muscles or put them into more trauma. You should leave the table afterward feeling refreshed, resilient and ready to go. "That's the beauty of massage," Wharton says, "it's a phenomenal recovery tool."

Reprinted, courtesy of Windy City Sports Magazine. For more articles and information for Windy City Sports, please visit

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