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 Medicine.

"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 levels.

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 cyclists.

"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 significantly."

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 later."

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."

Vital Information:

  • 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 muscle recovery.
  • Massage is most likely to reduce delayed muscle soreness when administered two to six hours after intense exercise.