For many people, getting a massage is one of life’s great pleasures. A back rub from a loved one or a 50-minute rubdown from a trained professional is an excellent way to relieve tension and help you relax.
But there are a number of reasons you may want to consider regularly incorporating massage into your life — especially before and after workouts.
Self-massage – massaging your own muscles with various assisted devices, like foam rollers, tennis balls, or lacrosse balls — can help increase circulation and eliminate impurities from the body.
However, self-massage is also different from what a trained physical therapist can do for you.
Physical therapists are biomechanical experts who are able to address trigger points — that is, areas of tightness — more precisely than most people can themselves.
Here are four ways professional massage can help you get the most out of your fitness regime whether you’re a newbie or a well-trained gym rat.
1. Faster recovery between workouts
A 2015 study by researchers from Ohio State University and the University of Pittsburgh found that massage “increases the percentage of regenerating muscle fibers,” especially when done immediately after exercise.
Dr. Melissa Leber, assistant professor of orthopedics and emergency medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai, and director of Emergency Department Sports Medicine, said massage can be an essential tool for the recovery time between intense workouts.
“When you’re training really hard — for example, like a U.S. Open athlete — you’re trying not only to stay motivated and driven, but you’re also trying to recover in between these hard workouts,” she said.
However, Leber, who’s been a player physician for the U.S. Open medical services annually since 2014, pointed out that the benefits of massage can help with recovery after workouts for people at all levels of fitness.
When done before workouts, Leber said massage can also help “clear your mind,” to better prepare you for next training session or game. It can also help relieve pain and soreness, giving you the ability to “work out harder and prepare better” because “you’re not as tight.”
Of course, it’s possible to overdo it — yes, even with relaxation.
“The downside of massage for an elite athlete is that you don’t want to be too relaxed. Sometimes it can make you sleepy,” said Leber. “So obviously, you want to use it carefully leading up to any kind of competition.”
2. Treating injury
A key benefit of adding massage to your fitness routine is speeding recovery from injuries.
“It depends on what kind of injury, but in many injuries the muscles tighten up,” explained Leber. “[With] any kind of strain or sprain, the muscles tend to shorten and when they’re healing, they heal tight — tighter than they were originally.”
Leber noted that massage is “very helpful” after an injury because “it’ll loosen up the muscles and help restore them to their original architecture — their original length.”
Because massage professionals know how musculature is supposed to look and act, they can guide clients toward recover faster following an injury.
“As physical therapists, what distinguishes us from other fitness professionals is that we really believe in putting our hands on patients, feeling the tissue, seeing what it feels like, and then watching them move,” said Carleen Baldwin, a physical therapist from University of California, San Francisco Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland.
3. Preventing injury
Massage can also help “prevent further injury by relaxing those muscles and taking some of this tension or tightness out of them,” Leber said.
It does this by addressing extensibility, or the ability of your muscles and soft tissue to be stretched.
Baldwin explained that massage allows for “more blood flow to the area” and over time a muscle “can stretch a little further.”
Muscles that have been loosened after a massage — thanks to increased blood flow — can also make stretching during your workout more fluid.
“That in itself could be a good way to prevent injuries,” said Baldwin.
She also noted the best way to prevent injuries is for people to listen to their bodies and not push too far if they’re feeling pain.
Baldwin said pain “is a huge red flag” signaling a need to see a physical therapist if trying a gentle self-massage in the painful area doesn’t have an effect.
If you find you can’t get into a certain position without pain, then you should speak to a professional.
4. Addressing stress
Massage has been known to ease depression symptoms and experts agree that it can help a person’s general well-being by reducing overall stress.
In fact, Leber pointed out one of the stress-reducing benefits of massage is having a short holiday away from technology. It gives people a chance to get away from their phones, laptops, and online distractions like social media.
“There’s a huge component [of massage] that’s psychosocial — of just being able to relieve someone general tension,” said Baldwin.
Emotional tension can be released through the release of physical tension, and a trained massage professional can help facilitate that.