What to Expect from a Sports Massage

shoulder massage

A therapeutic sports massage may be one of the most important tools in your fitness toolbox. It will improve your flexibility, reduce your risk of injury, and boost your circulatory system. Rest is critical for recovery, so you can get back on the road, field, or water faster. 

Maybe you have walked past the free massage tents after a race because you did not know what to expect. A sports massage involves a licensed massage therapist getting to know you and your trouble spots so he can work with you for the purposes of pain prevention, rehabilitation, and recovery. He will use several massage therapy techniques to get you the results you need.

What Is a Sports Massage?

Sports massage therapy is a tool athletes use to prevent injury. There are four types of massage therapy for athletes. These are pre-event, post-event, restorative, and rehabilitative. Sports massage therapists are well-versed in each muscle and muscle group and how they are used for different sports. Licensed therapists are also trained in cryotherapy and hydrotherapy. 


A pre-event massage stimulates the body and focuses on the areas that will be most exerted during the competition. These are typically given 15 to 45 minutes before the event starts. This is only for massage veterans. If you are new to massage therapy, opt for a massage two to seven days before an event to mitigate the risk of soreness on the day of the event.


Post-event massages are received within two hours of participating in a sport. They help to normalize your tissues. Sometimes pre-event and post-event styles are combined, particularly in events such as rowing regattas where you row multiple times a day for several days in a row. Another example is team running races where a team of several runners will each run a leg of a very long distance race. Finally, there are multi-day bike races around the world athletes take part in. If you get a free massage at the event site, your massage may only last 15 minutes, but if you go to your regular massage therapist, a session may last up to 90 minutes.


Restorative therapeutic sports massages are received regularly throughout training for an event. During the off season, if they are not training for a particular race, athletes use this massage style to train harder and beat their personal bests.


This style of massage alleviates pain from injuries, so you can get back to your regular training schedule. Lymphatic massage techniques are often used to speed the removal of edematous fluid throughout the healing process. Trigger point techniques are used to eliminate pain and spasms in both the injured muscle and the muscles that work extra hard to compensate for it. Cross-fiber friction techniques enhance the formation of flexible, strong repair tissue to maintain or improve range of motion during rehabilitation. Myofascial release massage techniques are used to manage both acute and chronic injuries in all stages of the healing process.


sports massage

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Expect a well-executed therapeutic sports massage to hurt. Massage therapy for athletes incorporates many techniques including trigger point work, muscle energy, and soft tissue release. Targeted therapeutic treatment is used for the unique biomechanical and physical needs of each athlete. Your therapist's job is to find your pain threshold and work just below it. He will advise you of breathing techniques to manage your unease while he works. If you undergo lymphatic or myofascial release massage, you may feel sore for a few days. If the damage was severe, you may feel faint, cold, or thirsty as your body works diligently to metabolize the waste products stored in your soft tissue. Take a warm bath and drink lots of water. After 24 to 48 hours, you will feel comfortable, refreshed, and revitalized. 

Trigger Point Work

This technique used by massage therapists for athletes uses cycles of isolated pressure and release on trigger points. Trigger points form when muscles tighten, and massage therapists use firm pressure on trigger points to encourage the tense muscles to release. Deep tissue massage eliminates hypersensitivity using specific thumb or finger presser applied to tender muscle and connective tissue points. It also eliminates muscle spasms and referred pain patterns, so one muscle does not lead to painful, restricted movements of entire body regions.

Muscle Energy

The muscle energy technique stretches, strengthens, and relaxes tight postural muscles by using an active contraction of the muscle against a resistive source. This technique improves posture and prevents pain caused by poor posture.

Soft Tissue Release

The fascia is a fibrous, hollow network of connective tissue containing collagen and elastin that surrounds the tendons, muscles, bones, and organs within the body. This is sometimes known as myofascial release massage and uses the application of sustained gentle pressure on soft tissue to improve flexibility, increase range of motion, and reduce pain.

Other Techniques

Deep Swedish massage is a cross between a Swedish massage and deep tissue massage. It encompasses tapotement, vibration, petrissage and standard effleurage applications to specific muscles. Rhythmic compression is used in muscles to create a softening effect and deep hyperemia in the affected connective tissues. It is often used as a warm-up for deep Swedish massage work. Lymphatic massage stimulates your lymphatic drainage pathways to remove edemas and effusion from your body and boost cell nutrition.

Be Well Prepared

Dehydration stiffens both the muscles and fascia, which leads to a more painful massage than is necessary. Ensure you are properly hydrated to make the experience as comfortable as possible. Massages naturally slow your digestive system as more blood is used to flush toxins and lactic acid out of your body. Wait at least three hours after eating a heavy meal to get your massage.


A sports massage can benefit you in any way you need it to. Runners may receive this type of massage for tight calves. Competitive weightlifters may use it to limber up because they have tense shoulders from sitting at a desk all day. Regular massages shorten the recovery time between workouts and increase blood flow to maximize the supply of oxygen and nutrients. They enhance elimination of the metabolic by-products of exercise, mitigating the risk of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) which is caused by an excess of lactic acid buildup. They improve range of motion and muscle flexibility, translating into more useable power and performance. They minimize the risk of injury through deep tissue massage, proper stretching, and event preparation. 


Therapeutic massage facilitates the rebuilding phase of conditioning and helps the well-worked muscles to recover from the stress of strenuous workouts. Lymphatic massage is often used to increase lymph and blood circulation, relax your well-worked muscles, and speed the removal of waste products, so you do not experience DOMS. It improves the elasticity of your tissues, so you keep your standard range of motion. It deactivates trigger points and speeds your recovery from injuries. Better flexibility and relief from sore, stiff muscles means you can push yourself harder sooner and mitigates the risk of future injury.


Sports massages reduce irritability, apathy, insomnia, frequency of injury due to over-training, increased resting heart rate, and increased or decreased appetite. They help your body recover through relaxation and improving cellular nutrition. By speeding your recovery, you can more quickly get back to heavy bouts of training.

Trouble Spots

Carefully vet your sports massage therapist to ensure he is licensed. Then, let him know of any trouble spots you have from past injuries. If you see him regularly, he can monitor your trouble spots to ensure they are limber and work on them especially to keep them in the best condition. He can also complement treatment received from other health care professionals such as physical therapists.


sports massage

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Regular sports massage is critical to keep you in top shape whether you are training to shatter personal bests during the off season or training for a particular race or other event. If you are not a massage veteran, have your pre-event massage two to seven days before the race. This mitigates your risk for soreness on the day of the race. Otherwise, get a gentle massage such as a hot stone massage 15 to 45 minutes before the event. If you opt for one of the free post-event sports massage tents at the event, expect to get only a 15 minute massage. If you go to your regular licensed massage therapist, you can get up to a 90 minute post-event massage.

Be prepared before you get your massage. Ensure you are adequately hydrated and do not eat a heavy meal three hours before your massage. Hydration ensures your connective tissue has adequate lubrication so your deep tissue massage will not be so painful. Eating only a light meal will also increase your comfort as you will not be lying on a table or sitting in a chair with a full stomach. A licensed sport massage therapist will work with you on trouble spots in coordination with other professionals such as physical therapists to monitor your trigger points, rehabilitate them, and prevent further injury. Carefully vet your massage therapist to ensure he is licensed in sports massage and any other types of massage he may use to work on you.

Massage Therapist Career Team

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