Top Performance Touch-Up

Your well-tailored fitness program may be missing something important—a regular massage. Here's our hands-on guide to the right rub.

    Photo: BortN66/Shutterstock

ALL SUMMER long you surfed, you hiked, you all-out mountain biked. Soon enough you'll be thumping through the moguls and skidding on ice. Problem is, relentlessly redlining your outdoor lifestyle week in and week out takes a toll on the body, especially when recovery means little more than popping ibuprofen caplets like they're Flintstones chewables. What's a sore adrenaline junkie to do?

"Every day, have a massage," says Melissa Shockey, a rubdown master at Otter Bar Lodge, a white-water kayaking school on Northern California's Salmon River. "The more massage, the better."
Her prescription may require a chubby wallet and open-ended leisure time, but Shockey has a point. No longer stigmatized as a frivolous luxury or a therapeutic detour on the woeful road to rehab, massage is now joining exercise, nutrition, and rest as a crucial component of a sound fitness plan, particularly for weekend athletes who may not take optimal care of their bodies. "Amateurs are training as seriously now as pros did 50 years ago," says Mel Cash, founder of the London School of Sports Massage. "It's usually aches and pains that make people give up a sport. But if Joe Runner stays out there with the help of regular massage, he's going to live to be 80 or 90 years old."

What can massage do for you, besides help you stay in the game longer? Even the simplest relaxation massages will decrease stress and improve circulation. More intense sports massages and deep soft-tissue work characterized by pushing hard into the layers of muscle, tendon, and ligament will shorten your recovery time after tough workouts and races, while keeping joint injuries and other ailments at bay. But don't take our word for it consider the evidence.

What the Pros Know
For competitive cyclists, speedy muscle recovery can make the difference between winning a stage race which can entail up to 20 races over consecutive days and finishing at the back of the pack. Rest between stages is critical, but rest combined with sports massage can double or triple recovery speed.

Racing and hard training leave behind microtears in muscle fiber, while muscle metabolism deposits waste in the form of lactic acid and phosphocreatine. As your body cools, these metabolic by-products solidify, creating adhesions between muscle fibers that inhibit those fibers from contracting smoothly against one another. Massage does two things: It physically breaks down the adhesions and waste products imagine rolling a clump of dirt between your fingers until it disintegrates making it easier for the body to flush out waste and restore your full range of motion. And it stimulates blood circulation, speeding up repair work by delivering oxygen and nutrients to muscles, tendons, and ligaments.

Of course, bike racers aren't the only people who stand to benefit from deep massage. "For recreational athletes who hit it hard on weekends and who may go three or four days without activity, exercise is even more stressful on the body than for those who work out regularly," says Bob McAtee, a Colorado Springs massage therapist who teaches sports-massage seminars around the country. For working-class funhogs, massage may be more about injury prevention than performance enhancement, but the two go hand in hand. Unless you apply due diligence every time you bike, run, or climb stretching before and after, warming up slowly and adequately, drinking plenty of water you're risking strains, pulls, and tears. And you're begging for more serious problems down the road, such as tendinitis and chronic pain.

Massage shouldn't replace stretching, but since it moves muscle fibers in many more directions than a person can stretch, it can increase your range of motion dramatically. Wes Hobson, a top American triathlete based in Boulder, Colorado, adheres religiously to a regular hour-and-45-minute intensive rubdown to keep himself limber. "I'm not the most flexible person, and I hate to stretch," says Hobson. "Massage really helps me out."

How Much Is Enough?
For mortal athletes, McAtee suggests gauging how often you should get a massage by the number of training miles you log. For runners, consider a massage session every 70 miles. "If you're a recreational runner who jogs two or three times a week for short distances, that may mean one massage a month," he says. "If you're training for a marathon, you're probably looking at a massage every week." Cyclists should slot a visit every 300 miles. Since a professional massage runs between $50 and $90 per hour, weekly sessions may require some budgeting. Of course, there is also the low-budget, do-it-yourself option.

Once you've committed to time on the table, determining your pain threshold is critical. While therapists vary on their opinion about how much you should hurt during and after your session, the purpose of sports massage is to penetrate far into muscle tissue, and sometimes that work can be painful.

"In general, the more pain you can tolerate, the deeper the massage, and the more you'll see lasting benefits," says Mark Tamoglia, a massage therapist in Santa Fe, New Mexico, who works with athletes of widely varying age and ability. "With a deep massage, you may feel good the day after, but the next day you'll feel even better." Your comfort zone may depend on how seriously you take your sport and your recovery. Any qualified therapist can help you zero in on the right intensity level.(To find a massage therapist near you, contact the American Massage Therapy Association, 888-843-2682 or www.amta massage.org.)

Relax, Bro
In the end, sports massage is about feeling better, not hurting more. A little extra suffering at the hands of your massage therapist pays off in the form of enhanced relaxation afterward, which may be more important than you realize. The body reacts to non-sports-related stress flack from your boss, for instance by contracting muscles and restricting blood flow to certain parts of your body. Worse, this tension carries into your extracurricular activities, leading to bigger problems. "People bring stress into whatever they do," says Shockey. "A lot of tension in sports is emotional tension, and anywhere there's tension there's potential for injury."

Moreover, some evidence shows that relaxation is a conditioned response. Massage takes the body through the relaxation process and makes it easier to coax yourself into a mellow state when you're feeling stressed, say, at the start of your first half-Ironman or pulling through the crux of a lead climb. "Over time," says McAtee, "the relaxation you learn on the massage table can be tapped on the line."

Whether you're budgeting for a professional massage therapist or plying your squeeze with red wine in hopes of convincing him or her to take on the role, consider sports massage the most pleasurable fitness prescription you're ever going to get. Forget gulping down painkillers this is medicine you'll take with glee.

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