The Massage Shortcut

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Bodywork, July 1998

The Massage Shortcut

Concrete benefits of a touchy-feely technique

By Nancy Coulter-Parker

If you always seem to have just enough energy to play but not to tend to the fussier details of fitness — you know, warming up, stretching, hydrating — you might consider adding sports massage to your schedule. A regular rubdown really shouldn't substitute for proper preparation, but it will help your muscles suffer less. By invigorating blood flow, sports massage flushes out lactic acid and helps heal microtears that happen during intense exercise.

There are several ways to incorporate massage into your schedule. "Pre-event massage increases circulation so that your muscles are ready to go the moment the event begins, not two miles into it," explains Nancy Schierholt, a massage therapist who worked with the now-defunct Coors Light cycling team for two years. "Post-event massage is strictly to aid recovery." Robert King, the director and owner of the Chicago School of Massage Therapy, which popularized sports massage in the early eighties, recommends — surprise! — a professional massage once a week, but says that twice a month will have noticeable effects. For muscles beat up by physical activity, be sure to stick with sports massage, which combines whole-body, deep-tissue kneading with direct pressure on tight spots, rather than the gentler Swedish method or the acupressure-like shiatsu technique.

Happily, if your conscience can't reconcile the cost, which can range from $35 to $85 an hour, you can opt for the less luxurious but still valuable self-administered variety — assuming it's your legs that need pampering. Take a cue from the pros: Always start with the feet and work upward, to move blood toward the heart. Before exercise, give your legs ten minutes of light karate chops, pinches, and shakes to stimulate blood flow. Afterward, knead your muscles firmly but slowly to spread out muscle fibers that have adhered to one another, halting blood flow and creating sore spots. And, alas, you should skip the massage oil: Most brands prevent the friction you want and block your pores, and consequently your ability to sweat, making it especially counterproductive before an event. "Oil keeps you sliding and gliding on the surface," says King. "In sports massage, you want to get to a deeper level."

To find a certified massage therapist, you can call the American Massage Therapy Association (847-864-0123) for a reference. And if you're into bargain hunting, look for a massage school, where students often run clinics that offer blue-light specials.

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