There is no doubt that post-race/workout massage is an important tool in the athlete’s recovery tool box, but perhaps not strictly for the reasons we’ve been repeatedly told; that massage flushes out lactic acid. As a massage practitioner myself, I made my own inquiry into the subject of massage as a recovery tool, and it yielded unexpected findings. The supposition that massage “clears” lactic acid from the muscles has been shown to be false. Lactic acid naturally dissipates from blood and muscle tissue quickly as part of the body’s natural energy production cycle. This does not discount the benefits of massage for recovery however.
After hard use, muscles become shortened and tight, detrimental not only to the muscle in question, but all of the muscles that function in that chain as well. Massage lengthens and releases tension in muscles, which leads to faster recovery times. Keith Grant, head of the Sports and Deep Tissue Massage Department at McKinnon Institute says, “When we cajole specific muscles to relax and lengthen via mechanical and neurological input, we reduce their metabolic activity. When the muscle relaxes, it’s not using energy as much, not metabolizing as fast, not producing waste products and because it’s more relaxed, it’s not compressed and not exerting pressure on surrounding tissues. This means circulation is better. It’s not because we’re pushing fluid around. It’s because we’ve put the body in a more optimum state, so the body naturally increases circulation on it’s own.”
Grant also posits, “Massage stimulates the mechanoreceptors and can gate off pain receptors. It floods the body with new sensory input. We are using the nervous system to reset the muscle to greater relaxation.”
This means that massage itself is not directly responsible for faster recovery, but rather, massage puts the body in a state where it can heal itself more effectively. Luckily, using tools to self-administer massage, you will be able to realize the benefits of massage in your recovery.
This is not to say that the positive effect of massage is due purely to mechanical changes in your muscles. In a 2000 study by Hemmings et al., the researchers found that the recovery benefits of massage are as much psychological as physiological. Grant interprets Hemmings’ findings thusly: “There is some evidence that following heavy exercise, both L-glutamine…and the immune system take a dip. I look at the healing effect of massage as, in some way, counteracting that dip. When you provide support it has a positive effect on immune function. If the person doesn’t feel supported and nurtured, it will have a negative effect on the chemical environment, opening them more to catching colds, not healing as fast and decreasing their ability to train. It ties into the whole emotional state of a person. The athlete has to stay healthy in order to continue training. With massage, they can train harder because they are able to recover faster.”
With this in mind, it’s obvious that cyclists will benefit from massage beyond the recovery window. Regular sessions, whether from a therapist or self-administered, help keep muscle long, loose, and limber. When your body is under stress from repeated hard training sessions, or even if you simply give it your all most of the time you ride, massage helps keep up your body’s production of stress-reducing endorphins. Plus, the feeling of nurturing and care is critical to an athlete’s—any person’s really—sense of well-being. Whether this nurturing comes from someone else or from your own hands, it’s still beneficial.
Even if you are not seeing a massage professional once a week, you can provide yourself with a good degree of muscle maintenance and repair, support, and nurturing using some of the tools we offer at Art’s Cyclery. Regular use of these tools will help you get better returns on your training, and when you actually get in to see your massage therapist, you’ll then be better able to benefit from their work.
Surprising ability to get to deep tissue using trigger points for self myofascial release
Great for lower leg, forearm, neck, upper trapezius, feet. Use to relieve stiff neck and shoulders after long rides, as well as release the pectoralis muscles which shorten while hunched over the handlebars. If you run for cross training, it does wonders for the tibialis anterior after running workouts.
For light to medium massage work, the Stick can be used to access deep tissue the quads and calves. One advantage is the pressure can be controlled by your arm strength rather than only body weight (see foam roller below).
Great for quads, IT bands, lower leg, glutes, back, neck
Uses body weight to get deep into muscle tissue. Best used on dense muscles, but can be painful at first.
Replicates deep tissue work. Excellent for Calves, quads, glutes, hamstrings, IT bands. Place it between you and a wall and access the upper and lower back muscles with more controlled pressure. Great for getting at stress induced knots. The textured grid elements on this roller allow for varying intensity.
Replicates trigger point therapy, acupressure. Excellent for relieving adhesions in the upper, lower, and mid-back. Application to acupressure points promotes feeling of relaxation and stress-relief. Releases trigger points that restrict range of motion.