How Massages Will Boost Your Performance

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You might think of a massage as a spa indulgence, but as a runner, it can also be a natural performance enhancer.

Sports massage stimulates muscles for physical activity and helps them recover post-run. "For runners, a regular massage is important to stimulate blood and lymph and to keep the leg muscles, joints and tendons in optimum shape," says Joan Ishibashi, a licensed massage therapist (LMT) at the Cleveland Clinic. "Sports massage is similar to Swedish massage, but is designed to optimize an athlete's performance, help an athlete recover post-event and address injuries."

Lowdown on Sports Massage

Sports massage is a blend of several techniques that can be tailored to suit your activity and the muscles used for it. "While Swedish and therapeutic are more full-body relaxing and a form of deep-tissue massage, respectively, sports massage is more spot-specific," says Robert Vance, spa director at the Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain in Scottsdale, Ariz.

"Sports massage is a broad modality that can help a runner flush out the lactic acid from his or her quads and hamstrings." While your legs do the heavy lifting during a run, sports massage also targets your upper body. "An area that is sometimes neglected is the pectoral and shoulder area," Ishibashi says. "It's important for runners to be strong and flexible in these areas."

According to CG Funk, LMT and vice president of Massage Envy, sports massage techniques can be light or deep, depending on the timing of the service. For example, if a runner is racing close to the appointment date, the massage therapist will usually apply lighter, more invigorating massages. If the runner is in between events and has specific issues, such as chronic pain or an injury, the session will usually focus on those areas and deeper massages.

"For runners, there are a couple of options," Vance says. "Massage therapists can do a sport 'spot-specific' flush of the leg muscles or an assisted stretch, in which they use techniques like Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (a push-resistance technique to stimulate the tendon therefore relaxing the muscle).

Another great option is Thai massage in which a therapist uses everything from their hands, feet, knees and back to stretch the body. With a Thai massage, the focus is on the lower back and extremities. "This is an ancient modality that has been used for centuries, and we recommend it to many of our athletes," he says.

Pre-Run and Post-Run Massage

Consult with a therapist to determine whether your body craves a post- or pre-run massage. "Both are beneficial, but the pre-run massage should be one to stimulate, not relax, the runner," Ishibashi says. "Post-run massage is a great way to help with the cool-down period and muscle recovery."

If you're training for a race, LMTs recommend getting a sports massage at least once a month, ideally once a week. Before booking, make sure the therapist is licensed with the American Massage Therapy Association. "Ask the therapist what type of massage they specialize in, and if they can give a runner's massage," Ishibashi says.

Also, make sure to ask about the massage venue to see if it is one you are comfortable with." Funk emphasizes the importance of choosing a massage therapist who understands your type of athletic endeavor. "There are so many different types of massage that could be beneficial depending on the client's needs, requests and experience with receiving massage," she explains.