The Science Behind Your Massage

Turn all the lights out and apply some imagination. Your body and your mind are a vast array of cause and effect channels that both limit and enable the production of power through the pedals. One way to improve power and recovery is massage. Now medical science takes this popular modality a bit deeper than lactic acid and the cloud of social politics.

A recent article in the Los Angeles Times on massage therapy introduced science into this hands-on mix and, not surprisingly, kicked out a few established views and documented why massage is so important to cycling performance. Most of us like massage for the simple reason that it makes us feel good, but let's take it a bit further. Mark Tarnopolsky is a researcher and author of a new study just completed at one of the world's foremost physical culture think tanks, McMaster University in Ontario, Canada.

More: Rub Out Sore Legs With a Massage

For decades Tarnopolsky studied the cellular effects of exercise on athletic performance. In a largely self-funded study, Tarnopolsky and co-author Simon Melov performed muscle biopsies on both legs of healthy young men before and after hard exercise, and a third time after massaging one leg in each individual. There was no word in the Times article on what Tarnopolsky used as an incentive to motivate his victims, I mean subjects. Knowing the procedure it had to have been substantial or maybe not, since they used college kids.

As Tarnopolsky and his team began comparing those tissues samples from his subject's massaged legs versus the tissue from the unmassaged leg, they found that the massaged leg had reduced exercise-induced inflammation by dampening activity of a protein referred to as NF-kb. Additionally, massage seemed to help cells recover by lifting another protein called PCG-1 alpha, which is responsible for producing new mitochondria, the small organelles inside each cell crucial for muscle energy generation. With the addition of other proteins, all contributed to muscle recovery from massage. This new evidence somewhat refutes the popular belief that massage eases pain by helping the body clear lactic acid concentrations. In fact, the team saw no effect of massage on lactic acid concentration.

The study first saw the light of day in the journal Science Translational Medicine. Here is the important part: The study is believed to be first work on a cellular level basis to document the true effects of massage on reducing inflammation and helping cells recover. "We knew there was something going on, but we couldn't get to it a decade ago," says Thomas Birk, associate professor of physical therapy at Wayne State University in Detroit who has studied the effects of massage on HIV patients.

More: Tune Up Your Body With Sports Massage Therapy

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