Recovery: Massage’s Unscientific Secret

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Outside Magazine, February 1995

Recovery: Massage’s Unscientific Secret
By Dana Sullivan

Six-time world-champion mountain biker John Tomac works massage therapy into a training regimen that also includes riding 20 hours a week in Durango’s hill country. “Massage seems to decrease my recovery time,” he says, “which means that I’m better off at the start of my next race.”

Testimonials from athletes like Tomac abound, yet the scientific evidence to support them is all but nonexistent. “I don’t know of any proof that massage has a positive effect on performance,” says Jenny Stone, director of internal operations in the sports medicine department at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. “Still, most of the athletes here insist on
traveling with trainers who are certified massage therapists.”

So what is it that brings so many athletes to the massage table? One of the few benefits that massage therapists and exercise physiologists agree on is that massage helps increase local circulation, with the result that the metabolic wastes (carbon dioxide and lactic acid) that collect in muscles during exercise are swept away so that oxygen and nutrients can move in and help
the muscles recover.

How this translates into performance is unknown, but regardless, no one is about to dismiss massage as a fad. “If a massage helps an athlete to come down after an intense workout and sleep better,” reasons Stone, “who’s to say that alone doesn’t improve his or her performance the next day?”