This past Friday was the first 20 miler of my training program – or 200 minutes since I’m going by minute goals for workouts instead of miles.
While there were plenty of thoughts going through my mind in the 3 hours and 20 minutes I spent running (ooof!), one of my favorite ones I ended with was looking forward to the time to treat myself to a massage.
It’s a wonderful time during your training season – and life – when any excuse not to get a massage goes right out the door! It’s part of your training!
So I did a little research. Here’s what I learned:
Myth: Massages break up lactic acid stores in your muscles.
Contrary to the commonly held belief, massages actually don’t break up lactic acid. Lactic acid doesn’t remain in your muscles for someone to break up hours or days later during a massage, it actually dissipates naturally and relatively quickly. The soreness felt after a hard run or workout is the damaged cells mending themselves (them-cells? No? Ok.)
What Actually is Happening
What your massage is doing is apply moving pressure to your muscles and tissues. This removes adhesions between fascia (Definition: “a thin sheath of fibrous tissue enclosing a muscle or other organ” – think sausage casing, eww) and muscles. When these two stick together, they restrict your muscle movement. Massages break up this scar tissue or adhesions, allowing for limber joints and improved range of movement.
Music to the ears of any runner.
Any Other Benefits I Should Know?
Circulation. Massages promote better circulation which brings more oxygen to your muscles for greater performance and recovery.
Pain Reduction. Massages feel good, or, if they don’t, the pain hurts so good anyway so we don’t mind. The more important piece is that they massage out the bad pains we don’t like – or alert them to injuries we didn’t know we had so we can treat them properly.
Pain affects how we function, even if we don’t realize it. If muscles are stiff or sore, we may compensate by relying more heavily on other muscles. Eventually this could completely throw off your gait and lead to bigger issues, such as knee, back, or ankle problems.
Relaxation. Recovery time is part of your workout plan! It’s equally as important as time spent working out. (Hello! Savasana!) Massages help relax tense muscles (and minds) and aid in the recovery period between times of stress (your workouts, or, ya know, life).
Hence, treat yo’self! – And enjoy it!
Different Strokes for Different Folks
The type of massage you should book depends on your own body and what it needs. StrengthRunning.com gave a great description for the 3 common massages for runners:
Deep Tissue: this is what most of us think about when we think about a “sports massage” – a massage that works the entire muscle while focusing on specific tight spots in both the deep muscle and also the superficial layers of fascia.
This type of massage is more holistic than the next two below, so this is best used during periods of hard training. Since it focuses on your entire muscle, rather than a particular trouble area, it’s great when you’re training a lot but don’t have a specific injury.
Active Release Technique (A.R.T.): this massage modality has become popular in the last decade. Combining trigger point massage with movement by the therapist, this type of massage is designed to break up scar tissue and improve mobility.
A.R.T. is best used when you have a specific injury where scar tissue may be impairing the healing and recovery process. A good therapist can determine where any adhesions may be and then break them up while improving functional flexibility in the tissue.
Swedish: This is your mom’s massage – a relaxing, typically soft-pressure massage that doesn’t go deep into the muscles. While it likely won’t help with muscle adhesions or scar tissue, a more relaxing massage still has many benefits for runners.
Before a race, a Swedish massage can help improve relaxation, muscle tension, and lower your stress levels without damaging or stressing the tissue. Just what you want pre-competition!
So when is a good time?
Not immediately before or immediately after your hard race or workout!
While there are often lines down the block for massage tables after races, I typically skip them. To each their own but my muscles have been through a lot during a race, especially during a marathon, and I prefer to give it a couple of days for my body to begin the healing process on its own. Three to five days post-race is more my sweet spot; my body has managed the initial inflammation and post-marathon soreness and muscle damage.
And the research agrees: Give it a couple of days.
Massages, while relaxing, are also working your muscles a lot. And to help avoid post-massage soreness, drink extra water! Re-hydrate just as you would post-workout.
If you are continuing to train after your post-race massage, follow it with an easy run the next day. Doing a strenuous speed workout, long run, or intervals negates the benefits from your massage the day before, leaving you too tight and, likely, dehydrated.
Similarly, pre-race massages require their own timeline to flush out the byproducts of the massage and for any residual soreness to go away, though if you receive massages regularly, this may not be an issue for you. If you have the means to schedule weekly or monthly massages, you may also help prevent injuries by catching tight areas before they become problematic.
The deeper the massage, the longer it takes to recover – just like running workouts. So give yourself at least 3-5 days before your race, more if it’s been awhile since your last massage. (A good range I saw was 5-15 days before your race.)
Now, I just moved to a new city, initially without a job. Even in my full-employment, low-expenses days, I wasn’t dropping my credit card for regular massages. I sadly cannot ball like that yet.
But there are still options!
So go out and feel good! I made it 20 miles and still managed to smile at the end.
You can too!