To test the validity of this common practice in the sports world, scientists did studies on a team of six rabbits. Each rabbit's hind legs were exercised; one of each rabbit's exercised legs was then massaged and the other was not. The massaged muscles fared better, according to the study, published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.
The rabbits had their muscles moved in a way to simulate exercise. The focus was on intense eccentric exercise, which is when muscles contract and lengthen at the same time. A device forced the sedated rabbits in a repetitive motion designed to mimic how a human's legs are exercised.
After the exercise regimen, one leg's muscles received a mechanical treatment that was supposed to imitate Swedish massage, considered the most popular style of massage with athletes. The rabbit's other muscle did not receive massage, but was rested after the simulated exercise routine.
The massaged muscles recovered significantly more function and strength after the four-day trial. Also, the muscles that were not massaged had more damaged muscle fibers and more white blood cells, which can indicate inflammation. The massaged muscles weighed less than the rested muscles, suggesting the massages prevented swelling.
"There is potential that this continuing research will have huge clinical implications," said Thomas Best, a professor of family medicine at Ohio State University and senior author of the study. "If we can define the mechanism for recovery, the translation of these findings to the clinic will dictate how much massage is needed, for how long and when it should be performed after exercise."