Professional athletes and their coaches have sworn by massage therapy for years, going so far as to keep massage therapists on the payroll indefinitely. Studies show the benefits of massage are being taken seriously. And those benefits are not just for the pros. They’re extended to anyone who participates in a regular exercise program.
According to the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA), massage acts to improve performance, reduce pain, prevent injury, encourage focus and shorten recovery time. It basically involves two types of responses: a mechanical response as a result of the pressure and movement and a reflex response where the nerves respond to the stimulation of a massage.
You may not realize it, but massage affects the cardiovascular system. It dilates blood vessels, which helps them work more efficiently to promote circulation. The manual assistance of encouraging venous blood flow back to the heart enhances blood flow, which delivers fresh oxygen and nutrients to the tissue and promotes the removal of waste products and toxins. Thanks to the relaxed state you’re in during and after the massage, your heart rate lowers. More known and expected are the benefits of massage to the muscular system. One of them directly ties to the cardiovascular benefits. The increased and enhanced blood circulation helps to relieve muscle tension, reduce soreness and make for a faster recovery. Then, the relaxed muscles can experience “an increase in range of motion and flexibility,” as explained in a study in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness. Both of those benefits can lead to better athletic performance.
The latest research conducted by scientists from the Buck Institute for Research on Aging at McMaster University in Ontario shows that massage reduces inflammation and promotes the growth of new mitochondria, the energy-producing units in the cells, following a bout of strenuous exercise. What does that mean? It means that massage can help pain relief, build muscles and encourage their recovery as well. Not only does massage feel good on the muscle tissues, it actually is good for them.
The sports massage study in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness points out that athleticism, particularly the athleticism required in competitive sports, doesn’t rely solely on physical strength. “Tactical maneuvering in cycling or an ability to focus on a task (e.g., gymnastics or golf) can also affect performance. Therefore, the psychological effect provided to an athlete by an experience such as massage may be of importance in a non-physiological manner.” These benefits include reducing stress and tension and anxiety while promoting relaxation by activating your parasympathetic nervous system. So you get an increase in dopamine and serotonin levels and a reduction in cortisol levels, which are directly linked to stress.
That relaxed, lowered-tension state encourages focus, a good thing to have before going into any sport, group exercise class or competition.