The best approach for Sports Recovery Massage
I know that what I am about to say is not going to be very popular, but most of what we see on social media about sports massage or bodywork is nothing more than a deep-tissue massage. Let's create some pain, bust out the cupping, massage gun, a little scraping and slap on some kinesio tape and you're sports massage is done! In fact, the term "sports massage" is simply a marketing term that helps target individuals that have more active lifestyles. Nothing wrong with that, but I just want to highlight that there is an approach with massage and bodywork that can actually help anyone recover.
Before I proceed, I am not saying that deep-tissue massage, cupping, massage guns and all of the above has no benefit. They sure do, and they are tools I use almost on a daily basis. What I want to talk about is, what is the best approach for athletic recovery when it comes to massage therapy and bodywork.
When seeking out bodywork as an athlete (anyone really) you need to first ask the question: What is my goal? What is the outcome I am seeking from the therapy?
If you are dealing with muscular tension, pain, stiffness, then yeah, deep-tissue work or some neuromuscular therapy with some assisted stretching could be your best approach.
Now, if you're goal is to recover from a hard workout or a long period of training, you need to be in a condition where you can recover quickly in order to continue performing. When you train hard, you are creating a lot of micro trauma in your tissue. That micro trauma is then followed up with a lot of inflammation in order to repair the damage caused from training. That is what soreness is. It is not lactic acid, but an accumulation of fluid within your tissues. The degree of that soreness will be detrimental as to when you can train again, or how much more you can put into a training session the next couple of days.
Another area we need to consider is the stimulation of your sympathetic nervous system which keep you in a state of high cortisol levels which will also have an impact on how quickly you can recover. The higher the stress levels the more cortisol is in your system, and inflammation will linger longer.
So, believe it or not, the best type of bodywork you should be receiving to recover from athletic training is a relaxing or stress reduction session. Let's face it, you train hard. You tear up your muscles and you are sore AF! The last thing you want is someones elbows smashing up those tissues to only create more damage! Yes, you may feel great afterward but that is only because that deep work only created a neurological analgesic effect. It pretty much numbed the pain. Other than that, it's not doing much in reducing inflammation and calming down your nervous system.
A good post-event sports massage will focus on relaxing you. Calming down that nervous system. Combined with firm long strokes and kneading techniques that will mobilize lymphatic fluid. It should not be a painful session. I am not saying it cant be deep, but it shouldn't evoke pain. Pain will only stimulate your sympathetic nervous system again and increase your mental stress, raise your heart rate and not do much for you in terms of recovery.
As mentioned in the previous paragraph, mobilizing lymphatic fluid is critical for recovery. During the normal diffusion of oxygenated blood into our tissues there is a small percentage of fluid that is left behind (interstitial fluid) for your lymphatic system to reabsorb and recirculate. When there is any type of injury or trauma to any of our tissues there is an increase in blood flow, therefore an increase in the amount of interstitial fluid. That is what causes swelling in an injury, and that same swelling is what causes muscular soreness. The good news is that a good bodywork session will help mobilize that fluid. In fact, there is a modality called lymphatic drainage which specifically targets the lymphatic system to help mobilize lymph fluid.
So in a good sports recovery massage that is what you are looking for. A session that will calm your nervous system down and improve the flow and circulation of your lymphatic system. This will allow for less inflammation and aid you in your recover by reducing the effects of muscular soreness.
Other tools can be used and be effective. Tools like cupping and the use of a vibration gun can help as well. Cupping can help decompress the tissue and improve the flow of fluid dynamics. A vibration gun can also help mobilize fluid (since muscles are mainly water). In fact there have been studies showing some of these benefits. The only issue when it comes to using these tools in terms of recovery is that you need to keep the stimulus comfortable and not painful.
So if you are preparing for a competition, a race, a fight, or just for life and need to recover try a relaxing stress reduction session. If your therapist is familiar with lymphatic drainage, ask them to perform some of these techniques for the areas you have trained the most. You WILL feel the difference!