What is Sports Massage, Part 3: Post-Competition Massage
Post-competition (or post-workout/training) massage is, generally, the version of sports massage with which athletes and clients have witnessed the most. This is due to the fact that is extremely easy to recognize and remember the image the multiple massage tables located near the finish line of competitions: obstacle course races, half-marathon or marathons, triathlons, track and field, and so on. The arena of massage therapists in these areas working continuously on the aches, pains, and cramping muscles of competitors as they finish their events. It is a relatively short massage by comparison, between 15-20 minutes. Some competitors may have the luxury of up to 30 minutes. However, I once gave sports massage at a local 5k/10k race, at which there were five of us giving massage with easily 20 people in each of our lines at all times for several hours. We were struggling to keep up giving only 5-7 minute massages per person.
In order for post-competition massage to have its intended benefit, there is a finite amount of time in which the massage needs to take place. Within the first 24 hours after the competition the athlete should be receiving their post-competition massage. In my opinion, this should happen within the first several hours after the event. I like to say the first few hours because it is generally easier for the athlete to fit the massage into their schedule during that time. During the powerlifting meets for which I’ve help, many of the athletes are travelling in for the competition or have rigorous schedules which won’t allow them to come back the next day. If the post-competition massage is, instead, thought of as just another part of what happens during the day of competition, it becomes easier to schedule and, therefore, more likely to be done.
The reason that necessitates the specific timeline is the state of the nervous system following a competition. The nervous system will be greatly heightened following any competition. Regardless of having mentioned endurance events previously, this applies to any and all competitions, if for no other reason than the sheer excitement of competition. The physical, mental, and emotional demands of any sport take their toll on the athlete and will place him or her (to varying degrees depending on the athlete, the athlete’s level of preparation, and the sport itself) in a state of heightened nervous system activation: sympathetic nervous system dominance, aka “fight-or-flight” response. The role of post-competition massage is to help bring the athlete’s nervous system out of sympathetic dominance into a state of parasympathetic nervous system activation, aka “rest-and-digest” response. The quicker and more easily this is done, the sooner the athlete begins the phase of recovering from the stresses of competition. The reason that I stated that this process needs to take place within the first 24 hours is the recovery system of the body itself. Once that time has elapsed, the body will begin the rebuilding process of inflammation and repair of the accumulated damage from the trauma of competition. In other words, the feeling an athlete gets the following morning after competing as they try to sit up out of bed, moan in pain, take one step, and instantly find they have muscles aching and cramping in areas that they didn’t even know they had muscles. That is an experience all athletes have experienced to one degree or another at some point in their training. It also helps to illustrate the onset of inflammation and repair that the body has begun. Once this stage of healing is underway, the massage techniques used by the therapist need to change to accommodate the differences in the muscular tone, the state of the lymphatic system, and the nervous system. The bottom line is: once this sets in, there is no getting around it. Therefore, the benefits associated with post-competition massage must take place prior to the onset.
In addition, post-competition massage is incredibly basic by comparison. The massage therapist should only be using a handful of techniques during this process: kneading to help drive blood flow and lymphatic movement, stroking (whether digital or palmar), and various stretches. This is not a time for trigger point or deep pressure. The speed should be a medium to slow tempo, and the pressure should never be heavy. This is, once again, because the massage therapist is trying to assist the body in slowing down the nervous system from the sympathetic dominance to parasympathetic. While heavy pressure can eventually be sedating over the course of 30-90 minutes, a brief experience of 10-20 minutes often is not. Discomfort and pain from short-term heavy pressure stimulates an adrenal reaction and drives sympathetic activation, which is counter to the intention the massage therapist should be having. Also, heavy pressure on an athlete who likely has elevated blood pressure after finishing their competition due to the demands of the competition can be incredibly uncomfortable as well. A medium paced tempo offers two benefits. The first is that the speed can still be relaxing and comfortable for the athlete. A faster tempo, once again, stimulates the sympathetic nervous system. This can be beneficial during pre-event massage but is counterintuitive to the goals of post-competition massage. However, given the time constraint of the post-competition environment, using a medium tempo allows the massage therapist to effectively provide massage to multiple areas of the body without going too fast to negate the necessary benefits.
If you have any questions regarding this, please feel free to let me know. I’d be happy to continue the conversation with anyone interested.