Photo by Nick J. Webb

 

It’s Valentine’s Day, and massage is on the mind. (Hint: if you’ve got a triathlete in your life, a gift certificate for a massage makes a present more lovely than flowers!) But massage also serves important therapeutic purposes beyond the romantic: massage can help you race better, recover from the stress of your workouts, and prevent injuries. 

How It Works 

Massage fosters your recovery on both physiological and psychological levels. Physiologically, it can help move edema (swelling) out of the tissues. It relaxes tight muscle groups, working to bring the body back into balance and thus helping protect against overuse injuries. It can also help prevent adhesions in the muscle tissue and the fascia that surrounds muscles. These adhesions can build up and limit your range of motion; keeping them from forming helps you move fluidly and perform at your best.

Taking time for self-care helps to balance the strain of intense training.

The feedback you get from your massage therapist about what’s going on in your body can also help you make decisions about your training and racing. For example, if your therapist notices an area of tightness or stress, you can take corrective measures to release that area and to strengthen other muscles to prevent tightness. A massage therapist who knows you well can give you insight into your readiness to race. Tim DeBoom has been visiting the same massage therapist for over 16 years and considers her instrumental in his recovery from an accident that left him with a broken back. Before he headed to Kona for Ironman Hawaii in 2001, his therapist pronounced him “ready to win.” And win he did.

Psychologically, massage will not only enhance your confidence and ease in your body but will cultivate deep relaxation—a state is critical for life balance. Most endurance athletes (especially those racing ultra distances) are under a lot of stress from training and the demands of work and relationships. Taking time for self-care in an environment away from the computer, the cell phone, and even conversation, helps to balance the strain of intense training. 

What to Get 

The style and intensity of massage varies from practitioner to practitioner. Most massage therapists use a combination of Swedish and deep tissue massage, although some practices divide these into two distinct modalities. In general, Swedish massage will be lighter and more rhythmic, while deep tissue work will be, well, deeper. This can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your tastes and how far you are from competition (see below). Other massages might include hot stones and aromatherapy, both pleasant additions to the primary work of massaging the muscles. Regardless of the name of the service you receive, you’ll need to communicate with your massage therapist about your needs and your experience. Don’t suffer through something that feels too intense—massage is supposed to relax and calm you, not add to the intensity of the training week. 

When to Schedule 

You could enjoy massage once a week if your schedule and budget allow, but once a month (perhaps during your stepback week) will do. As you get closer to your peak event, you’ll need to lighten the intensity of your massages so that you aren’t left sore after the fact. You can also plan to space your massage earlier in race week, if it tends to leave you sluggish. Professional triathlete Alex McDonald will schedule a massage early in the week before a race weekend. “I’ll be sore on Monday and Tuesday,” he says, “but by the end of the week I feel like a spring chicken!”

The same principle of spacing out massage from your peak event goes for returning to the table after the race—if tissues are inflamed, massage won’t be a pleasant experience. I favor a lighter massage and usually go the Thursday before a Saturday race, and again the Monday after. This helps me feel rested, supported, smoothed out, and ready to do my best, while setting me up for quicker recovery afterward. Of all the recovery modalities—nutrition, ice baths, compression socks, and the like—massage is the nicest. Make it part of your routine.

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Sage Rountree is a USA Triathlon Level 2 Certified Coach and author of The Athlete’s Guide to Yoga. Her latest book, The Athlete’s Guide to Recovery is now available for preorder on Amazon. Her extensive research and work with triathletes and ultrarunners have taught her to value recovery. She leads yoga workshops nationwide and presents regularly for USA Triathlon. Visit her schedule at sagerountree.com.