What makes a good sports massage?

There’s nothing worse than going in to have all your aches and pains ironed out and you encounter a masseur who surrounds you with Enya and gives you such a gentle rub that you doze off. Sure, it’s relaxing, but a true sports massage should involve vigorous and deep muscle stimulation – so basically a good pummeling of the body.

There are key differences in some technical aspects and aims of a normal massage versus sports therapy. A normal massage is more superficial compared to the deep stimulation of a sports massage. The aim of a normal massage is to alleviate general stress in order to increase circulation and relaxation, working along the muscle surface to relax the body. Whereas a sports massage is more specific, working deeper on muscle fibres with a specific athletic enhancement goal.

A sports massage, according to sports masseur  Vanessa Homann, is a manual systematic manipulation of the soft tissue of the body in order to decrease injury potential and enhance training. ‘Sports massage works because it works deeply on realigning muscle fibres thus ensuring better functioning as well as increasing nutrients and oxygen to the muscle. The benefits are increased range of motion, decreased lactic acid build up, decreased injury potential, increased circulation and increased cellular metabolism, to name but a few,’ says Homann.

Homann specialises in therapeutic sports massage and explains how a true sports massage should play out.

• First, she says, you start with a warm up that involves a faster, more superficial motion upwards and towards the heart to increase circulation. Sports people know that without a warm up the muscles will be shocked into work, which can be counteractive.
• Secondly, a cross friction technique is applied across the muscle fibre to break down adhesions. An adhesion is formed by a misalignment of muscle fibres. This can be caused by a lack of nutrients and oxygen to the fibres, overuse or underuse of the entire muscle or being used incorrectly.
• Then trigger point therapy is worked in, which is a manual compression of the adhesions that when released bring a flush of blood and nutrients to the area.
• Origin and insertion work is then applied to the muscles, which activates proprioceptors/sensory receptors to manually aid correct tension and length of the muscle.
• Thumb slides along muscle fibres are then applied to ensure the fibres run smoothly together thus leading to the ultimate goal; decreasing injury and increasing muscle function.
• Lastly, flushing, which is a fast motion, rids the muscle of waste build up.

Although she assures that all massage is good for you because it generally functions to increase circulation, decrease anxiety, improve blood pressure as well as improve overall mood and productivity, the difference is that sports and deep tissue massage is especially beneficial for working deeper on the muscle fibres and increasing a range of motion and functionality. So it depends on what your body needs.

How can they help you with your fitness regime?

A sports massage is sought after to alleviate the consequences of overtraining, of continual training, of actions that tighten the muscles, and because of spasms and stiffness that may be present in even the most inactive person. Of course, anyone can benefit from a sports massage, says Homann, ‘providing you are not ill, don’t have acute inflammation; and are not averse to being touched’.

How often should I have one to reap the benefits?

The effects of massage are accumulative, therefore the more regularly you attend sessions the more benefit you will gain. Homann warns that the first massage may be more painful and you may feel tender and bruised afterwards, but thankfully the body is intelligent enough to decrease these effects with more regular work. Homann, therefore, recommends a session every one to two weeks for the most benefit.

How to find a good sports masseur

If these massages aren’t done correctly there can be some gruesome implications, so how do you decide on whom to work your body black and blue (without lasting effect, please). Homann suggests not searching online or at your nearest day spa, instead, she recommends finding a massage therapist who acts under the title ‘sports massage therapist’ and holds a qualification that included Anatomy, Physiology, and Exercise Physiology from a recognised institution.

‘The key is finding a therapist with a qualification from a recognised university, wherein sports massage will be an additional certificate qualification.’ Camelot Institution and the Sports Science Institute of South Africa are good guides. Alternatively, a chiropractor, physiotherapist or bio kineticist should be able to refer you to a sports massage therapist, says Homann.

‘Don’t feel shy to ask where the therapist studied and for how long – this is your body and it’s essential you put yourself in the hands of someone who knows what they’re doing,’ explains Homann.

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