One of the greatest pleasures in life is to treat yourself to a massage. Thai, Swedish, Deep Tissue, Hot Stone. There is no doubt that a solid massage can induce pure bliss, leaving you in that sweet spot between awake and asleep, curing all that ails you.
As a huge believer in alternative therapies, I have always encouraged the athletes and clients I work with to seek massage as a means of recovery. Whether plain-old soreness or true injury, anecdotally, massage appears to provide relief and healing. However, as a scientist, I have to admit the research examining this therapy have not shown significant benefit. Until now.
Up to this point, studies have shown that massage has healing powers - on the brain. Psychologically, massage can result in feelings of relaxation, decreased heart rate, reduced blood pressure, and lower anxiety and stress. While these incredibly powerful effects are most certainly essential for health, they don’t quite provide evidence that massage is, in fact, physically beneficial for recovering muscles. While it may feel fantastic to have your sore shoulders rubbed after a stressful day or challenging inversion workshop, is it truly helping your traps and deltoids to recover?
It has been said that massage “increases bloodflow to the muscles” which, as conventional wisdom dictates, must therefore deliver essential nutrients and healing oxygen to the injured tissue. But, because bloodflow is a really difficult thing to measure, this has never really been proven (although, a new method has been proposed that may actually be able to show this phenomenon in the future). Additionally, while some studies have suggested that massage decreases soreness (DOMS) after exercise, the research doesn’t always show a reduction in muscle tenderness either. So, is that $80-$125 really worth it?
As it turns out, probably!
A new study released about a week ago was finally able to demonstrate direct molecular benefit of massage to muscle tissue (whew, what we knew all along is finally proven true!). According to researchers, a 10 minute massage after exercise actually decreases inflammation and may even promote muscular metabolism.
Muscle inflammation is typically present after a bout of exercise. Small inflammatory molecules called cytokines are released in high concentrations after you damage your muscles, and they are what cause you to feel sore. However, when a muscle is massaged after your run or bike, the cytokines are significantly reduced. Through this mechanism, the researchers of this study suggest that massage works very similarly to popping a few Advil or Motrin (NSAID’s).
The added bonus of massage (besides reducing chemical ingestion into your body) is that it may also help to increase the number of mitochondria you make as your muscle is being repaired - possibly providing a boost on subsequent hikes, yoga classes, or strength training sessions!
So, the next time you are experiencing the after-burn of a killer spin class or squatting sesh, treat yourself to a nice deep tissue massage. Don’t have the cash to splurge? No worries, you will most likely get the same effect with a foam roll or The Stick (minus the lavender oil and Enya playing in the background...).