Runners, when was the last time you took your body in for a tune-up? You invest plenty of time and money into training, quality running shoes, and the trendiest apparel — but you may not be investing enough time and money into self-care and recovery.
The more regularly you take your car in for routine maintenance, the better it runs, right? Well, routine massage therapy works the same way for your bod: It scientifically leads to better performance and a decrease in injuries.
What massage therapy does
Like chiropractic work and acupuncture, massage therapy is considered alternative medicine that is now covered by many insurance companies. Besides the obvious relaxation benefits, massage improves posture, increases rate of recovery by 30 percent, and enhances immune function.
According to some research from 2005, it also stimulates dopamine and serotonin production, which in turn improves your mood. And it increases blood circulation, which removes harmful metabolic byproducts and delivers oxygen and nutrients to injured areas.
Many athletes might agree with the notion that consistent work breeds consistent performance. The same can be said for taking care of your body. Consistent recovery and care for your body breeds consistent body performance.
Ultramarathon runner Ted Romero says he believes consistent massage has been key to recovering and avoiding overuse injuries. “The fascial release provided by massage is crucial to healthy tendons, ligaments, and muscles,” says the certified personal trainer of 18 years.
Remember the children’s song lyrics “Your knee bone’s connected to your thighbone; your thighbone’s connected to your hip bone”? Getting a massage isn’t just about releasing tight muscles — it’s about helping the whole system.
Massage therapy can help release your fascia — a sticky, spiderweb-like membrane that connects all your muscles and tendons — and this can improve your mobility.
When one tight muscle pulls on nearby fascia during a run, it can disrupt the integrity of the entire system. A shortened muscle decreases range of motion and circulation to compressed tissues.
Physical therapist Heather K. North also encourages runners to seek regular massage for that reason.
“Massage therapy can keep patients out of my office by nipping small injuries in the bud and by maintaining connective and muscle tissue pliability,” she says. “Combining regular massage with at-home physical therapy exercise is an excellent way to promote longevity in the sport of running.”
There’s much more to giving a good massage than rubbing someone’s shoulders, obviously. Specifically, there are three common massage techniques that each serve recovery and relaxation purposes:
- Swedish massage. This technique incorporates a combination of light-to-firm pressure and longer strokes to encourage relaxation. It’s often used to say “hello” to tissue before diving deep.
- Deep tissue massage. This technique is a lot like Swedish massage but uses a higher concentration of firm pressure and slower strokes in specific trouble areas.
- Trigger point therapy. This technique uses pressure in specific points that are correlated with certain muscle pain patterns. For example, a trigger point in your calf muscle may relieve pain in the bottom of your foot.
A good massage therapist knows which techniques to use to meet their clients’ needs. But keep in mind that they don’t have to market themselves as a “sports massage therapist” in order to help you.
If you’re interested in checking out massage therapists near you, sources like the American Massage Therapy Association and Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals can provide a list of licensed professionals that could be a good fit for your needs.
Those are the two main professional organizations for licensed massage therapists. You can also contact your local running store or club for recommendations. Or you can ask a physical therapist for a referral — these two modalities work in harmony together.
While some massage therapists’ doors have reopened since the pandemic began, be sure the one you choose is adhering to federal, state, and local safety guidelines.
Sephra Albert, a licensed massage therapist of 17 years, practices in Boulder, Colorado, where masks are required in all indoor settings.
“Additional precautions I take include prescreening clients for any symptoms or exposure to COVID, the use of a HEPA air filter, cleaning all high-touch surfaces with a disinfectant, and changing all linens between clients,” Albert says.
It’s your body, so don’t be afraid to ask questions.
So, the benefits of regular massage therapy for runners may sound good and all, but you may have some unanswered questions about what it means in practice. Here are a few FAQs that we can clear up quickly.
Do I have to take my underwear/bra off during the massage?
No — this is totally up to you. If you’re asking for connective stroke work (i.e., from the back to the legs) or a lot of glute (butt) work, most massage therapists find that it’s easier when the client doesn’t wear underwear or a bra.
But your comfort is most important, so if taking your underwear off is going to make you tense on the table, don’t do it.
How soon before or after a run should I get a massage?
The specific timing of a massage ahead of a run can depend on the type of massage you get and how your body reacts to it. If you’re getting massages regularly, your massage therapist should know your body well enough to do what works for you.
It’s recommended that runners get a light massage 24 to 48 hours after a big run to help release stiffness and improve blood flow for recovery.
Can I still run after a massage?
Yes. However, running after a massage can be like jumping into a mud bath after a shower. A light session to help work out any lingering kinks after your massage is fine, but a hard run isn’t advised.
If you’re using massage therapy to rehab an injury, definitely give yourself a rest day to avoid overworking the areas that are healing.
When many massage therapy offices closed during the height of the pandemic, a lot of runners resorted to self-massage techniques. The following are a few key areas runners should target.
The quadriceps, sometimes collectively called the thigh muscles, allow you to extend your knees and flex your hips. You can most easily massage them with a foam roller or a massage stick. Be sure to roll along the entire length of these large hip flexor muscles, including where the lateral muscles cross the hip and knee joints.
IT band and tensor fascia latae
Runners often complain of tight iliotibial (IT) bands and tensor fascia latae. In reality, tight quads get “stuck” to the IT band, which crosses the knee joint.
When you massage this area, you help the layers of tissue slide across each other freely, so the IT band doesn’t tug at the knee (a chronic area of complaint for runners). Rolling on massage balls or tennis balls can help break up tissue.
For many of us with desk jobs, the glutes (gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus) need a good rolling out, even before we start to run. Glutes help extend the hips and rotate the hip joint. When they get tight, it can lead to lower back pain and instability in the hips.
You can effectively massage these hip extensor muscles with foam rollers and balls (tennis, lacrosse, golf). Roll and sink into the tissue for a few seconds when you find a sore spot.
Tight calves can lead to plantar fasciitis, which is characterized by soreness in the bottom of the foot, particularly at the heel. You can massage the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles with your fingers, a small roller like the RAD Helix, or a tennis ball.
Find tender spots and press until the pain dissipates. You can use the same manual methods or massage tools for tight spots on the bottoms of your feet. Try using frozen golf balls for isolated pressure.
Massaging the intercostal muscles (the muscles between your ribs) creates space for your breath to expand in all directions. To create more space in your rib cage, reach between your ribs with your fingers and twist like you’re turning a key.
Tight neck muscles aren’t just uncomfortable — they can also restrict breathing (not good for runners or anyone else). You can manually release neck muscles, like the scalenes and sternocleidomastoid, by gently milking them with your fingers.
When your adductors (the muscles on the inside of your legs) get tight, it’s usually a symptom of a hip instability issue.
You can roll them out with a foam roller or even a rolling pin. Be sure to press against the muscle insertion points along the pubic bone to help the muscles release. If you can’t reach them, ask someone who won’t be shy for help.
Rest and recovery are vital parts of any exercise regimen. And just like running consistency is key for improvement, massage consistency is key for longevity in the sport.
Search for a qualified massage therapist to help you establish a schedule, and communicate what works best for your comfort and your body’s needs. If you’re going the DIY massage route, practice some of the techniques on key areas to get the most out of your recovery.
Give it a shot. Your muscles should appreciate the maintenance.
Amanda McCracken, LMT is a journalist who covers health, sports, travel, and everyday heroes. She’s passionate about experiences that highlight the intersection of wellness and relationships. She’s also a licensed massage therapist and triathlon coach. When she’s not working, she’s caring for her daughter or exploring trails with her husband near their home in Boulder, Colorado. Follow her on Instagram.