Massage therapy has become very popular among athletes, and in particular runners. Massage is purported to relieve muscle soreness, abbreviate recovery time, restore range of motion, remove adhesions, and even improve athletic performance. Catherine Ndereba, queen of the marathon, says massage is the one thing she cannot live without and receives two massages weekly as her reward for running 90+ miles a week.
Massage most directly affects our muscular system, but it also has an impact on other systems of the body as well. Research has shown that the human body responds to pressure – no, not just any pressure- but deep, therapeutic pressure applied in a steady, even manner by a professional. Therapeutic massage elicits very specific responses, such as, increased blood circulation, increased diameter of blood vessels, and decreased blood pressure, to name a few. These effects are significant for anyone, but can be of special importance to the athlete looking for ways to recover faster, prevent injuries, and improve performance.
Muscle tissue contracts; muscle contraction results in movement. Running requires sustained, repetitive muscle contraction. The greater the muscle contraction, the more shortening occurs within the muscle tissue, and the more force generated. The amount of muscle fiber recruitment determines the amount of force generated by each contraction. In running, these sustained, repetitive contractions translate into speed, power, and distance.
Fascia is a type of connective tissue that provides support; somewhat like a body stocking. Fascia wraps and separates each individual muscle, providing support and allowing greater ranges of motion. Fascia also works to absorb a portion of the physical stress from impact involved with running sustained from hitting the ground. Tendons attach muscles to bones. Tendons are located at the ends of each muscle belly. Muscle and fascia wrap together to form a tendon.
Ligaments are a highly fibrous form of connective tissue that connects bone to bone. They provide support to joints. Ligaments allow movement only within that joint’s range of motion. The cardio-respiratory system includes the heart, lungs, blood, and blood vessels. This system is responsible for oxygen transfer, nutrient delivery, and waste removal. Our circulatory system delivers blood enriched with oxygen and nutrients, like glucose and electrolytes, to muscle tissue. It then picks up and removes muscle metabolic by- products and waste. Inadequate circulation is somewhat comparable to starving and missing your garbage pick up day. Systems of the Body and Massage Susan Salvo’s textbook, Massage Therapy: Principles and Practice, lists some of the effects of massage on the body’s systems:
Massage and The Cardio-Respiratory System
- Dilates blood vessels- this promotes circulation and lowers blood pressure. Both systolic and diastolic BP readings decline following massage and remain lower for up to 40 minutes.
- Improves blood circulation by mechanically assisting venous blood flow back to the heart. Some studies have shown that massage increases local circulation up to 3 times more than at rest. This is comparable to levels of circulation during exercise. Better circulation means better delivery of nutritive materials and oxygen to surrounding cells and tissues.
- Cut down on eating from 4 p.m. on the night before the race or long run. Normal portions may be too much. It’s okay to snack on toast or an energy bar. No fat or roughage.
- Promotes rapid removal of metabolic waste products; therefore improving recovery time.
- Increases red blood cell count and their oxygen-carrying capacity.
- Reduces heart rate.
- Increases oxygen saturation in blood.
- Improves pulmonary function by loosening tight respiratory muscles and fascia.
- Reduces respiration rate by activating the relaxation response.
Massage and The Muscular System
- Relieves muscle tension through improved circulation.
- Reduces muscle soreness and fatigue through enhanced circulation.
- Increases the amount of oxygen and nutrients. Increased circulation disposes of waste products and hastens recovery time.
- Increases/restores range of motion; thus improving running efficiency and performance.
- Improves flexibility- this reduces the risk of injury, improves running efficiency and performance.
- Restores posture and gait.
Massage and Connective Tissue
- Reduces excessive scar formation.
- Decreases adhesion formation.
- Releases fascial restrictions.
- Improves connective tissue healing.
Massage and The Lymphatic and Immune Systems
- Promotes lymph circulation.
- Improves connective tissue healing.
- Increases the number and function of natural killer cells; thereby boosting the immune system.
Massage and The Nervous and Endocrine Systems
- Reduces stress and anxiety and promotes relaxation by activating the parasympathetic nervous system.
- Increases dopamine and serotonin levels.
- Reduces cortisol levels; elevated cortisol levels are linked to stress.
- Reduces norepinephrine and epinephrine levels; these hormones are linked to high levels of stress.
- Decreases pain through improved circulation and by triggering the release of endorphins and other pain reducing neurochemicals.