Sports massage: the effects and benefits
As well as passing industry qualifications such as a Level 3 Certificate in Personal Training, those looking to enter the fitness profession may like to consider specialist areas of health and fitness, such as a Level 3 Certificate in Sports Massage (soft tissue therapy), the subject of this blog.
As well having a working knowledge of anatomy and physiology, the sports massage specialist will need to be able to assess clients and plan their treatment. They will also need to be trained in massage techniques and learn in more detail how these can benefit the person they are treating.
In addition, they will find out how to monitor the progress of their client and provide post-treatment care options, including prescribing exercise or rest.
The effects of sports massage
The client will experience physiological, psychological and physical changes following sports massage treatment.
Sports massage can cause either a sympathetic or parasympathetic effect on a subject ’s body systems, depending on how it’s applied.
For the most part, the parasympathetic or relaxation response is more desirable as it brings the following benefits:
- Reduced production of sympathetic or ‘stress’ hormones
- Vasodilation to the blood and the lymphatic vessels, caused by the relaxation of the smooth muscle
- Reduced neural stimulation (contraction) of muscles due to the relaxation of the skeletal muscles
The opposite effect is seen when a sympathetic response occurs.
Following a sports massage, a client will also experience psychological effects, which are linked to the physiological effects.
A vigorous massage will have a sympathetic effect, increasing the production of adrenaline and endorphins in the client’s body and stimulating their mental and physical states.
However, a massage that engenders a parasympathetic response should release tension within the tissues and reduce blood pressure, cause the client to feel more relaxed and less stressed.
A personal trainer or other fitness professional carrying out sports massage should be aware that the physical and mental responses of receiving a sports massage are closely linked. This means that the end result can be influenced by the client’s state of mind and by what they are told to expect from the massage.
As sports massage tends to include the pumping, squeezing and stretching of soft tissue, it can result in a variety of physical effects.
These include the improved flow of blood, lymph and other fluids, and the better mobility of soft tissue. Certain massage techniques can lead to the separation of muscle fibres from one another or from other soft tissue.
The benefits of sports massage
These range from overall wellbeing to specific benefits, which stem from improved circulation as well as the relaxation and mobilisation of soft tissue, for example:
- Better recovery from physical activity as metabolic waste products are removed from the tissues
- Improved healing and repair as more nutrients are supplied to vascular tissues
- Relief of pressure from congestion and metabolic irritants and the reduction of tension in the muscles can all help reduce pain
- Better range and efficiency of movement, which will reduce the risk of injury
- Improved posture and awareness of how the client positions themselves
- Fewer impairments to muscular function
Sports massage for acute, sub-acute and chronic injuries
Clients are often referred to personal trainers and sports massage professionals by a medical professional – or they may self-refer.
The treatment should be specifically targeted to support the injury at different stages, whether acute, sub-acute or chronic.
Acute injury sports massage
In the acute stage of injury, the sports massage specialist should be aiming to minimise any further injury, pain, swelling or bleeding as well as avoiding secondary cell death.
The treatment for this stage is known as the PRICE protocol. This stands for:
Applying direct heat or heat through creams and sprays is not recommended at this stage as they cause vasodilation and increased blood circulation, which is not advisable for an acute injury.
Sub-acute injury sports massage
At this stage, the sports massage treatment should aim to minimise the formation of scar tissue by increasing the flow of blood and nutrients to the area.
Sports massage can also help to improve strength and mobility by reducing muscle atrophy, pain and swelling. This must be tempered however, as a newly healed injury runs the risk of further bleeding and reverting back to the acute stage if sports massage is applied too vigorously.
General sports massage techniques can increase circulation and relieve pain, while ‘frictions’ will mobilise soft tissues to minimise the formation of scar tissue. The client should also be encouraged to carry out gentle stretches. A sports massage may also include muscle energy technique – a neuromuscular approach that encourages muscles to return to their length prior to the injury.
Heat and ice can be used at this stage, as can gentle exercise, whether receiving assistance from a practitioner to move the joint or carried out independently (see our blog on Exercise for those with mobility issues).
While pain relief and reduced inflammation can be gained from NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), personal trainers and sports massage professionals should refer clients to their GP for advice on whether to take these.
Chronic injury sports massage
In the chronic stage, the sports massage professional would help their client to regain their mobility, strength, flexibility and proprioception. The ultimate goal may vary from client to client, depending on the nature of their injury, but ideally would involve returning to their previous levels of fitness and movement.
At this stage, the client can also tackle more taxing exercises to build flexibility, strength and function.
A sports massage professional can make a significant difference to the way that a client recovers from an injury, which can affect everything in their life from their job and daily activities to their mental state and overall wellbeing. The sports massage practitioner must be trained to the correct level and keep up with new developments in their area of skill.