Alex Hutchinson draws on the latest research to answer your fitness and workout questions in this biweekly column on the science of sport.
The question: Will massage soothe my aching muscles after a workout?
The answer: A study published a few months ago by researchers at the Poznan University of Medical Sciences in Poland illustrates why it's hard to answer this question. They had subjects perform difficult exercises with both arms, then massaged just one of the arms, and evaluated recovery over the next four days. Subjects said the massaged arms felt better, but there were no measurable differences in inflammation or range of motion.
That's pretty much the story of massage research so far: lots of anecdotal evidence, but a scarcity of hard facts. "It's not something where you can do a double-blind experiment," admits Trish Schiedel, a Victoria-based massage therapist and president of the Canadian Sport Massage Therapists Association.
Actually, there are ways of eliminating the placebo effect - in rabbits, at least. That's what researchers at Ohio State University did in a study that will appear in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. Their work provides some of the first solid clues about the biological basis of sport massage.
For many years, muscle soreness after workouts was thought to result from an accumulation of lactic acid in the muscles, and massage was believed to help flush the acid out. The lactic acid theory is now largely discredited, and muscle soreness is instead thought to result from microscopic tears in muscle fibres. New tears will continue to appear for several days after a bout of exercise, possibly due to inflammation of the affected area.
To further investigate the role of massage in relieving sore muscles, the Ohio State researchers exercised sedated rabbits by triggering a nerve impulse that causes contractions of a leg muscle. They then used a machine to deliver "cyclic compression forces" that simulate 30 minutes a day of Swedish massage (the most common type of sports massage). The results were clear: Massaged muscles regained 59 per cent of their lost strength after four days, whereas rested muscles regained only 14 per cent.
The massaged muscles also had fewer damaged fibres and almost none of the white blood cells associated with muscle damage. The muscles also weighed less, suggesting that massage had helped prevent swelling. Interestingly, the results were much less pronounced if the first massage was delayed for a day after exercise, suggesting that the sooner you get your massage, the better.
The rabbit results won't extrapolate perfectly to humans, cautions Thomas Best, the Canadian-born researcher who led the Ohio State study. But these quantifiable outcomes should help scientists begin to figure out the duration, frequency and strength of the massage stimulus that produces the best results.
Right now, the right strength is determined by feel, while frequency and duration tend to be a function of how much you can afford. "If you ask five different therapists, you'll get five different answers," Dr. Best says.
That means that until more research is done, the benefits of massage may depend on who, exactly, is doing it. "You'll often hear therapists say they're listening with their hands," Ms. Schiedel says.
To figure out whose hands hear best, it goes without saying that you should steer clear of massage parlours and head instead to clinics staffed by registered massage therapists. Better yet, find a certified sports massage therapist who will have completed an additional 1,000-hour post-graduate program.
Soft lights, sweet music and soothing hands: A massage can be very relaxing. "But that's not what you want right before a race or a game," says Trish Schiedel, president of the Canadian Sport Massage Therapists Association. There are three primary roles for sports massage, each with specific goals and techniques:
Light, rapid strokes function as part of the warm-up by loosening muscles and engorging them with blood. They serve as a wake-up call to the nervous system.
Slower, more gliding strokes with light pressure. The purpose is to relax and flush the effects of exertion from the circulatory and lymphatic systems.
Regular massage can focus on chronic injuries and incorrect tension patterns that could lead to future trouble. It can involve deeper - and sometimes more painful - techniques.
Alex Hutchinson is a former member of Canada's long-distance running team, and has a PhD in physics.