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Home » Sports Massage

What is Sports Massage?

Submitted by on February 18, 2009 – 8:02 amOne Comment

I wanted to talk philosophy today, to cover an important aspect of how I approach my work.  That is, to try and identify what it is we mean when we say we provide “Sports Massage.”

Here are some definitions floating around the internet when I Googled “define:sports massage”:

Sports Massage:  Massage therapy focusing on muscle systems relevant to a particular sport. (

Sports Massage: A deep tissue massage – often around the joints – for treating specific muscle groups. (

Sports massage is designed to enhance athletic performance and recovery. There are three contexts in which sports massage can be useful to an athlete: pre-event, post-event, and injury treatment. (

Massage techniques for athletes aimed at either preparing the muscles and joints for athletic activity or helping in recovery from the stress and strain associated with athletics. (

Sports massage consists of specific components designed to reduce injuries, alleviate inflammation, provide warm-up, etc. for amateur and professional athletes before, during, after, and within their training regimens. (

All of these definitions are quite different.  Some talk about the muscles and joints involved in sport, others talk about different types of massage used at different times of training.  In different ways, each has some truth.  However, I think it is impossible to define sports massage in one or two sentences in a glossary of terms.

So what can we truly call “sports massage?”

It must be the techniques, right?  Are there special ones used ONLY on athletes?  Nope!  In reality, the sports massage techniques I use are no different than I’d use on any client who comes in my door, and many of the techniques I use were not taught to me as “sports massage”, but rather as myofascial therapy or therapeutic stretching.

What I’m getting at is the techniques alone don’t make it a sports massage.  The most important thing that makes it a sports massage is the approach we use as a sports massage therapist.  To be a value to our athletes as a sports massage therapist, we must apply these 4 areas of knowledge to the athlete’s situation:

  1. The basic biomechanics of the sport our athlete is participating, to know the common areas of myofascial strain they will encounter in training and competition
  2. Exercise physiology, to know what techniques can be used before, during and after competition
  3. The healing process of the body, to know what techniques can be used in what stages of injury
  4. Functional assessment techniques, so we can identify soft tissue structures that are not functioning properly (either short, long, or weak)

Here’s what these four items look like in practice:

Biomechanics of the Sport:  Let’s say I have one of my track & field athletes coming in for a recovery massage during the indoor track season in February.  First off, I need to consider what event(or events) the athlete performs.  The strain of sprinting is much greater on the hamstrings than for a distance runner, who will commonly have IT band issues from the tight turns on an indoor track.  This is also very different than the strain encountered by a high jumper or long jumper.  Understanding these factors of their specific event allows me to personalize the session to what their body needs.

Exercise Physiology: How close to competition am I seeing the athlete?  A general rule of thumb is to avoid deep tissue work 2 days prior to competition.  I will educate my athletes when I work on them that they may feel a little soreness the day following the massage, but not to worry, this feeling will go away the following day, so they won’t worry if they wake up with sore legs.  Also, I don’t want to give them a relaxation massage right before their event.  I have been fortunate to work at number of NCAA track and field championships and I am amazed at some of the techniques I see.  I have seen therapists performing relaxation techniques (slow effleurage) to the athlete’s legs and even their neck and shoulders a short time before they are scheduled to compete.   Stimulating their parasympathetic nervous system at this time could be a detriment to their performance!

Healing Process: Often, I will see an injured athlete soon after the injury has occurred, with the hope that I can do something to reduce their pain or shorten their recovery time.  Again, educating the client is key.  It would be very wrong to perform transverse friction over the site of a recent muscle strain, but there are other techniques in my toolbox that can provide benefit in the acute phases of injury, such as lymphatic drainage and positional release techniques.

Functional Assessment: If someone comes in to see me with a diagnosis of shoulder impingement, that only tells me where the injury is occurring.  It is more beneficial to their recovery (and my efficiency) if I have the knowledge to perform a few simple assessment tests to determine the root cause of the dysfunction.  One scenario is shortness in the pectoralis major that is pulling the glenohumeral joint anteriorly, out of it’s normal alignment.  Another may be weakness in the serratus anterior that does not allow for full upward rotation of the scapula during shoulder abduction.  The site of pain is a symptom, find the cause!

In applying this approach, sports massage is in fact a form of what we call orthopedic massage, but highly specialized to a subset of our population (athletes).

Working as a sports massage therapist is a very rewarding (and sometimes exciting) experience.  But to be a valuable part of the athlete’s support team it is less about learning the latest and greatest techniques, and more about knowing how and when to apply the techniques you may already know.


One Comment »

  • Eric Winter says:

    Hey Therapist alike,
    After getting the basics in training and education about Sports massage in School (2 years ago); I realized that as an work-out fanatic, Muscle Wisdom had provided a thorough and advanced knowledge about sports massage. I have worked in the gym setting for 8 months prior to the CEU and I felt that I was missing something; even after I recapped on the text books and videos from school and the Internet.

    Now after 9 months post Muscle Wisdom training, I have confidently accessed and provided quality Sports Massage for all my clients at the gym and I’m booked solid two weeks in advance!

    Thanks for the knowledge,
    Looking forward to the upper extremity training in Chicago!

    -Eric Winter