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Therapeutic Sports Massage

Submitted by on February 27, 2010 – 7:12 amOne Comment

(Originally posted on

In previous articles, I have discussed pre-event, inter-event, and post-event sports massage. In this article, I will complete our series by covering the therapeutic sports massage.

To review: Sports massage involves the application of therapeutic massage and stretching to assist an athlete’s performance and recovery from activity. However, there are different types of sports massage based on when you give the massage in relation to the competition:

  • Immediately before competition (Pre-Event)
  • Between competitions on the same day (Inter-Event)
  • Immediately after competition (Post-Event)
  • During the training program (Therapeutic)

Again, when approaching these different types of sports massage, I prefer to focus on the purpose of the massage to direct me to the appropriate techniques.

The purpose of therapeutic (or “maintenance”) sports massage is to correct soft tissue dysfunction that has been caused by high intensity training or from previous competition. We have the same approach as a traditional (non-athletic) therapeutic massage, but we place more emphasis on the muscles and movements utilized in the sporting activity. In organized athletics, the sports massage therapist may work in coordination with the overall sports medicine team, including team physicians, athletic trainers, and physical therapists.

Sports Massage Workshop Stretching

To provide the best benefit possible to your athletes, I strongly recommend learning as much as you can about their activity, including the mechanics of the sport, as well as the typical training they perform. This knowledge will help guide you when you are presented with an injury to understand the mechanism and what other structures may be involved. For instance, you may be presented with a chronic hamstring strain that is partially due to shortness in the hip flexors, creating an anterior pelvic tilt, and more stress on the hamstrings. Or, perhaps even a baseball pitcher who develops shoulder impingement because their opposite foot has a broken toe, causing them to change their throwing mechanics (Dizzy Dean, for you baseball historians!).

An additional benefit of learning about the sport is the athlete will place more value in your work if you can show that you understand their sport and what they are doing to their body. So, a little research can pay dividends in your massage effectiveness as as well as your reputation as a sports massage therapist.

Therapeutic Sports Massage Timing

Now, one big question I had when starting out was: If the athlete is practicing hard during the week, shouldn’t I avoid any deep therapeutic techniques with a therapeutic/maintenance sports massage? The short answer is no.

Even though the athlete is doing high-intensity workouts throughout the week, they still will benefit from deep-tissue techniques. Ideally, you would schedule the massage around their workout schedule, so you perform the massage on a light workout day (Archer, 2007), or even later in the day after a hard workout. From personal experience (feedback from my track athletes), they find that their legs feel “loose” the day after I work on them, but a few have said their legs feel “unresponsive” or “dead” for one day after I have used deep massage techniques.

Using this experience, I also coach new athletic clients, to let them know what to expect for the next 2 days after I have worked on them. Managing their expectations can be very important. It is better to let them know that they may feel a little sore or “dead-legged” the day following their massage, rather than letting them think you hurt them somehow and they never come back to see you!

Likewise, knowing that I may create adverse effects for 24 hours following a therapeutic massage, I want to schedule an athlete at least 48 hours before competition (that is, if they have an injury that requires serious work). If the client is not used to receiving massages, I will push this back to 3 or 4 days prior to competition, to ensure their bodies have a chance to incorporate the changes from the massage.


In general, any technique you can think of can be utilized in a therapeutic/maintenance sports massage. In most of my sessions, I incorporate myofascial techniques, stretching and joint mobilizations to restore the normal resting muscle length after strenuous activity. For athletes with acute injury, lymphatic drainage is extremely valuable for reducing swelling and reducing the time it takes an athlete to return to competition (Fritz, 2005).

When working with a post-operative athlete, it is essential to work with the sports medicine team, to insure the athlete is getting the appropriate treatment for their stage of rehabilitation. This may require some work by the sports massage therapist to educate the other healthcare providers about the benefits and capabilities of manual therapy (lymphatic drainage, scar tissue healing, etc.). But, it also requires effort from the massage therapist to learn about the stages of rehabilitation and avoid stressing the injured tissue too quickly.

To wrap-up my little series, I find sports massage to be a very fun, challenging, and rewarding experience. I feel very fortunate to work with elite athletes who are very in-tune with their bodies and push themselves to their physical limits. Because they are always working to get better, it also drives me to look for ways to improve my approach, so I can always give them the best possible sports massage.


Archer, Pat.  Therapeutic Massage in Athletics, Philadelphia:  Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2007 (p.209-210).
Fritz, Sandy.  Sports & Exercise Massage, St. Louis:  Elsevier Mosby, 2005.


One Comment »

  • Rene' Johnson says:

    Thank you for sharing this very valuable information. I found it very informative and useful. Good point on suggesting that we study/research how athlete use their body in their choice of sport, so we would know how to treat them.