The Rub With Massage: Does It Really Help Muscles Recover After Exercise?
April 26, 2000 -- Massage is widely believed to enhance muscle recovery
after intense exercise, even though scientific evidence is lacking, according
to a new report in the April issue of the British Journal of Sports
"There's no evidence that massage enhances repeated sports performance
either, but there may be psychological benefits that shouldn't be
overlooked," says study author Brian Hemmings, PhD, a researcher at
University College Northampton in the United Kingdom.
Hemmings explored the effect of massage on performance and recovery among
eight male amateur boxers. Participants completed two identical punching
trials, between which they either rested or had a massage. Researchers
monitored the boxers' perceptions about recovery as well as their blood lactate
Lactate is produced by the body when it burns carbohydrates for energy.
After prolonged exercise, lactate accumulates in the body, decreasing
performance and causing muscular aches and pains. It is, in a sense, what
causes the "pain" without which there is no "gain."
Although massage increased the perception of recovery, there was no
difference in blood lactate levels between those who received massage and those
who rested. Hemmings tells WebMD that similar observations have been made among
"Accumulation of blood lactate is thought is to delay muscle
recovery," he says. "And an increase in muscle blood flow is thought to
reduce lactate levels. But not all studies have shown a positive effect of
massage on lactate removal."
In a corresponding editorial, another researcher applauds Hemmings' work.
"This study has shown that massage is no different from passive recovery in
lactate removal," says Michael Callaghan, MPhil, a senior physiotherapist
at Manchester Royal Infirmary in the United Kingdom. Pointing to similar
findings among runners, Callaghan adds, "The findings should finally lay
this particular ghost to rest."
But one U.S. physician isn't so sure. "There are lots of misconceptions
about post-event massage, particularly among marathoners," says Lewis
Maharam, MD, president of the New York Chapter of the American College of
Sports Medicine. As the medical director of several marathons, Maharam tells
WebMD that massage enhances muscle recovery when used appropriately.
"A 1994 study showed that massage had no effect on recovery immediately
after exercise," says Maharam. "But when administered two to six hours
later, a 30-minute massage reduced delayed muscle soreness
Based on this evidence, at least one of his patients changed her ways.
"After 26 miles, I have to force myself away from those massage tents,"
says Kim Ablondi, a veteran of 11 marathons. "But by waiting a few hours,
I've noticed a big reduction in muscle pain that used to come on two days
According to Hemmings, both the physical and mental effects of massage
deserve more investigation. "The effects of massage on blood flow will
continue to be debated," he says. "But the interplay of physical and
psychological factors in recovery also merits further study."
- The physical effect of massage on muscle recovery and repeated sports
performance is controversial.
- Massage appears to have a positive effect on athletes' perceptions about
- Massage is most likely to reduce delayed muscle soreness when administered
two to six hours after intense exercise.