Sports Massage Performance Improvements: A Meta-Analysis
Sports massages are pretty ubiquitous 1I like using big words. Me feel smart! across athletes. Having been in training rooms and locker rooms in various sports, it seems like everyone always wants a massage. After all, pro athletes use them and we all know how smart they are 2snicker. But do they work? Is there a sports massage performance benefit for athletes? If so, what are they?
Well, a pretty recent meta-analysis tried to answer some of those questions. For you non-scientists, a meta-analysis is “research process used to systematically synthesize or merge the findings of single, independent studies, using statistical methods to calculate an overall or ‘absolute’ effect.” In plain English, it’s a process to normalize findings across various, disparate studies which then tries to draw out conclusions from them.
So, 29 different studies were included in the analysis. Those studies had a total of 1,012 participants. According to the authors, this is the largest study ever to look at sports massage performance and recovery.
Various types of massages were counted in the meta-analysis, but to be included it must have been a massage “by a qualified professional, with the purpose of improving performance in or recovery from sport.” In short, the study excluded every other type of massage such as an automated massage, water jets, or foam rollers.
Anyways, sports massage performance improvements were measured across the following categories: strength, jump, sprint, endurance, fatigue, flexibility and DOMS (delayed onset muscles soreness).
The results were a bit underwhelming in my opinion, as there was no direct evidence of increased athletic performance across any of the performance categories. In fact, two of the studies examined found that massages were detrimental for performance, at least when performed before exercise.
Wait, doesn’t that contradict the title of the article? Did you just get click-baited into reading this? Well, maybe, but there is some good news!
And here it is: there were some small but statistically significant improvements in recovery, notably flexibility and muscle soreness. Flexibility, in this case is defined as “the range of motion available to a joint or joint series”, showed a 7% improvement. While 7% isn’t much, a small improvement over time can add up to a large improvement.
And delayed onset muscle soreness (aka DOMS) showed a 13% reduction over the control group. If you’re not aware, DOMS is muscle discomfort (or pain) that generally peaks 24-72 hours after exercise. So a reduction in DOMS is a good thing. One study they examined even found “significant reduction of muscle soreness in female collegiate basketball and volleyball players, with 80% of those receiving massage reporting decreased soreness.”
To me, improvement in recovery and range-of-motion is fantastic as it confers a few benefits such as:
- You can train more consistently which leads to increased performance
- It is generally accepted that increased flexibility leads to less injuries 4there’s always exceptions. Less injuries = healthier body = more training = better performance.
So while a sports massage didn’t lead directly to increased performance, it’s reasonable to say there is a benefit.
In Summary, does a sports massage improve athletic performance?
In short, according to the study, no it doesn’t – at least not directly. “Our study finds no evidence to justify inclusion of massage with the expectation of direct improvement of performance in strength, sprint or endurance.”
So are sports massages worthless?
No, they’re not. From a physical standpoint, massage is associated with a “small but statistically significant improvements” in flexibility and DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness). In short, you have better flexibility with reduced soreness.
In theory, this translates to additional benefits in training frequency and injury reduction. After all, it’s easier to train when you’re not sore and flexibility is positively correlated with injury prevention.
There are also mental benefits associated with massages. For example, many experience a sense of calm or peace after a massage and those benefits should not be discounted.
A few of the analyzed studies also suggested that massage may reduce heart rate variability and reduce cortisol levels. Cortisol levels are directly tied to inflammation and too much or consistently raised cortisol is a very bad thing.
Heart rate variability (HRV) is simply the time interval variation between heart beats. The science of HRV is still relatively new and while it’s generally thought that a higher HRV is a better indicator for fitness, a low HRV can be desirable in certain circumstances.
Should I get a sports massage?
If you feel a benefit from a massage, continue to get them! 5although a “massage” at a “massage parlor” probably doesn’t count unless, umm, you get other benefits No one but you can determine if a massage is worth your time and money. Further, more controlled studies are needed to really dig into the massage question.
So while they’re not a panacea to your athletic ills, there are benefits – both physical and mental – to getting massages. As the study concludes, “given the huge number of potential massage regimens and timing, it is impossible to conclude that massage cannot improve performance if the correct timing and indication could be defined. “