What Is Sports Massage? Part 2 : Pre-Competition Massage

The image that comes to mind when you hear the words “Massage Therapy” often involve the cliché of a resort spa setting: low-light, vaguely tribal music or the sounds of nature playing gently overhead, something that hints at eucalyptus oil wafting in the perfectly climatized air, and a soft-spoken therapist that instructs you to “relax and breathe.”

I work in a gym. There’s a nearly equivalent amount of time spent listening to heavy-metal music or EDM. I regularly talk to clients over the noise of barbells being dropped, plates hitting, coaches giving instructions, fellow lifters yelling encouragement, and general grunting. In the Winter, it gets too cold, and in the Summer its hot as hell. The only thing that passes for aromatherapy is the cleaning solution I use to disinfect the massage table between clients. If at any point during the reading of this description, you, dear reader, have wrinkled your nose and thought to yourself that you would never be found in an environment such as that; I am happy to say that we would be ill-suited working together, and you would be better off signing up for a massage at the aforementioned spa.

I love where I work: in a gym with athletes who are training to compete.

I decided years ago that what I truly wanted to do with my business was to be able to work exclusively with athletes. That decision meant that I had to be able to provide a level of care within massage therapy that set me apart. I wasn’t going to have a general population of clients that I could fall back upon. Also, I wasn’t going to be able to work exclusively with athletes in a traditional spa setting. I needed to be where the athletes were training. I needed to see them move and have a chance to talk to them during their workouts. Being given the opportunity to work at Unrivaled Strength affords me the opportunity to do all these things.

The environment in which I’m working is only the first part of that opportunity though. The remaining aspect of being able to provide Sports Massage to an all-athlete population is providing a multi-tiered soft-tissue approach that attempts to cover all facets of therapy within my scope that the athletes will need in order to be ready for their training and/or competition.

However, these facets of sports massage are often stereotyped and mislabeled as either trigger point massage and/or deep tissue massage. This is a gross over-simplification. I understand the need for simplifying large topics when trying to give explanations to a general population. However, if the audience to whom the information is being given is a member of the general population, then this audience member doesn’t need to be receiving sports massage. General therapeutic massage will suffice for them. Therefore, I’m not going to insult anyone’s intelligence. I will, from here on out, be assuming that if you’re reading this that you can comprehend basic anatomy/physiology, neurology, and principles of soft-tissue work, cause this where it gets fun.

We begin, with a definition…

Sports Massage, fundamentally, is meant to manipulate the nervous system of the athlete in order to put them into an individually-specific primed-neurological state that will help that athlete transition into the state of being that will help him or her to accomplish their next immediate goal. Put simply: everything the body needs to do, from performing to recovering, has a certain neurological state that is specific to the task that allows to does that task the best. My job is to use massage to help the athlete get to that state.

Now, let’s go back to the terrible explanation stated earlier about sports massage being depicted as only trigger point or deep tissue massage. This belief system comes from the most common template for sports massage. Usually, when an athlete is seeing a massage therapist, he or she is looking to recover from a vigorous workout/competition, or to rehab from an injury. So, in regards to recovery and rehab- yes, a large majority of the work that I do with my athletes consists of neuromuscular therapy, which incorporates trigger point massage and deep tissue work. However, if you remember from the previous article, Post-Competition/Workout and Rehabilitative massage are only two types of massage that fall under the category of “Sports Massage.” The third type of Sports Massage is Pre-Event. This type of massage is how I needed to be able to separate myself from other massage therapists in my field. Why? Because Pre-Event is one of the most unique forms of massage when it comes to working with athletes.

What are the potential benefits of Pre-Event?

  1. Increased blood flow

  2. Increased range of motion

  3. Increased proprioception

Those sound helpful, right? Yes. But wait…doesn’t standard massage therapy do that too? Ehh, yes, but not in the same way. So what’s the difference?

Doing a standard massage (ie. Relaxation massage) helps the nervous system to slow down. This type of massage aids the athlete in transitioning out of sympathetic and over to parasympathetic, which can be incredibly beneficial. Prior to competition however, the athlete is looking for an increase in sympathetic nervous system activity in order to increase performance. Which means, if a standard massage, which technically has all the benefits listed above, were to be performed prior to competition, then it would counter the athlete’s necessary nervous system state and decrease their ability to compete or train as effectively.

So how does an athlete get the benefits listed but not the detriment of decreased sympathetic activation? By adjusting the speed and techniques used in the pre-event massage.

Pre-event massage, aka “Wake-Up” massage is short, fast-paced, and intense. There is nothing relaxing about it. It generally lasts 10-15 minutes, depending on the athlete’s needs and the sport for which they are getting ready. It hits all of the highlight reel by increasing blood flow, proprioception at the joints, range of motion, etc. But it also, and most importantly, speeds up the nervous system.

Pump the breaks….

I’m going to take a second to add the necessary legal online caveat of “I am not a medical doctor. I do not pretend to be one. Nothing that I say should be taken or interpreted as medical advice.” That being said, here’s how I like to think of this:

Image that I slapped you in the face. It would hurt. Once you feel that pain, there are two likely scenarios that would result from this-

  1. The first is that you will feel pain and run away because you think you’re in danger and want to get away from the danger (Flight Response).

  2. The second is that you will feel pain and hit me back because you think you’re in danger and want to prevent me from doing it again (Fight response).

Either way, your sympathetic nervous system has been activated and you are ready for a dramatic and immediate response in order to, as you perceive it, save your life. The slap that I dealt to your face is a threat. That threat causes stress. Stress inspires a reaction. Hence “Fight or Flight.”

That’s only one side of stress though. What about eustress? Eustress is a positive stress response. It is the gut feeling before a big game, the nerves that you get riding up the first hill on a roller coaster, the feeling of excitement that a child gets on Christmas Eve thinking about the gifts they will receive in the morning. There is no physiological difference between stress and eustress. The body still releases epinephrine and norepinephrine, senses are heightened, blood flow is shunted away from the digestive tract to be diverted the muscles, mind, and companying senses. It has all the same attributes as a typical stress-induced fight or flight response minus one crucial factor: the perception that the event is something to be avoided (aka negative).

A pre-event sports massage, in my opinion, is meant to induce this type of eustress response. During the massage, I intentionally induce a mild stressor to the body which, while helping to promote the previously mentioned benefits of blood flow, etc., is also anticipated and familiar and, therefore, assures the athlete that they are safe.

I have been able to use this technique over the past three years to help a range of athletes including: competitive powerlifters, collegiate swimmers and divers, track and field, Olympic lifters, Crossfit, and gymnasts. It has been a learning process for me, one which has required continuous refining and improving, over and over. Just like the athletes with whom I am fortunate enough to work.

Train. Improve. Repeat.


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