For this article we have asked Claire Desroches, one of our resident Sports Massage Therapists, to highlight and explain the benefits of sports massage for runners.
So, straight over to Claire……..
Benefits of regular sports massage for runners
I have been working as a massage therapist for a few years now, treating every type of client from people in their 60s who have never exercised to some of the most legendary athletes in their sports, and every level of recreational athlete in between.
It is interesting how widely attitudes to massage vary from one individual to another – for the most part, recreational athletes tend to see massage as a bit of an indulgence; something beneficial, but that you only treat yourself to after a heavy training block or an event. For most high-level athletes, it is as much a part of their training routine as conditioning or team meals.
No matter what level you are at and whether you are training for a race or just trying to improve your Saturday park run time, when you increase your training load (either volume, intensity, and most probably both) you may get an injury. A sudden increase in training load, is actually one of the strongest predictors of injury. So it is vital that you actively take steps to increase and maximise your recovery time; adequate sleep, sensible nutrition, recovery sessions (yoga, for example), and massage can and should all play a role in your training routine.
If nothing else, a regular massage booking is a chance for you to check in with how your body feels, as well as for an experienced professional to spot early signs of overuse and fatigue. The problem with getting a massage only when you are injured is that your therapist might pick up on tightness and muscle imbalance that you always have, but that has nothing to do with your current issue. So ideally you would commit to getting a massage every 1-4 weeks, depending on how much you train, and you and your therapist can discuss any changes in your body and how to adjust your training regime accordingly.
You will notice very early on in the treatment that your muscles will feel warmer; if you can see it, your skin will turn pinker. This is simply an increase in blood flow, which is a sign that the tissues in that area are getting a fresh supply of oxygen and nutrients, and are being encouraged to flush away their waste products (which build up in training). These are all natural processes that happen in the body anyway, but manually encouraging them can help speed up recovery, especially in areas that don’t typically get much circulation, such as the Achilles tendon.
Every sport has a repetitive element to it, but running is one of the more repetitive activities you can do. If you are running outdoors, you will encounter slight variations in terrain which will cause subtle differences in movement (and injury, if your body is not prepared for them), but generally you are still performing the same movement over and over again; push off the toe, pick the knee up, strike the foot down; elbows bent, torso rotating. Not to mention the impact, which sends force through your tissues and causes your muscles to brace to protect the joints.
Depending on the terrain you are running on, the type of shoes you run in, and the strength of your feet and ankles, calves and shins may get overworked trying to stabilise the knee. Instability at the knee can also get picked up by the ilio-tibial band (IT band or ITB, known to most runners), which can cause muscles in the hips like tensor fascia lata (TFL) to tighten up, often leading to lower back tightness and/or knee pain.
Most people think of stretching when they feel tight, but the reality is that you usually only end up stretching the least tight part of the muscle. Massage can target tighter areas of the muscle, as well as muscle groups that are harder to stretch (e.g. adductors or TFL). Your massage therapist may also use some stretching techniques as part of your treatment, accessing areas you may not be able to stretch yourself.
Runners also often forget their upper bodies, which are used not only to swing the arms but also to maintain good posture and to breathe. Plus, many of us have stress in our daily lives which can further tighten these areas and make it harder to release them. Asking your therapist to spend some time working on these areas can greatly improve running performance and comfort levels during your training.
Speed, power and endurance
While it’s your training programme and miles on the road that get you a new PB, the time in between sessions is when your muscles rebuild and strengthen. If, however, these muscles are not able to recover adequately you will be missing out on crucial strength gains.
If muscles like your hamstrings, calves and hip flexors stay tight, you will struggle to stride out fully and will lose out on speed and power with every step. And if muscles around your upper body are tight, you may not be able to get a full breath of air into your lungs, reducing oxygen uptake which will lead to earlier muscle fatigue.
Adequate amounts of good quality sleep are absolutely essential to your training, as are regular rest days (especially when you least feel like you need or want them!). However, tight muscles may remain tight, and can impede your mind’s ability to switch off; tight shoulders, necks, and jaws can lead to tension headaches and eye pain, and a general sense of stress and discomfort. Feeling stressed can cause muscles to tighten further, and can interfere with your perception of pain during training.
Getting a massage can not only help release those tight muscles but also gives you an hour of time to yourself to reset and recharge and, in some clients’ cases, have a snooze on the massage table!