The Powerful Benefits of Massage for Runners (and how to do self-massage on the cheap)

by Jason Fitzgerald

Do you love a good massage? You should: the benefits of massage for runners may help you attain your next personal best.

Benefits of Massage

Study the training of professional runners and you’ll notice that they have an entire team helping them succeed. Their coach is just the leader – most elites also see sports psychologists, strength coaches, nutritionists, a variety of doctors, and yes, massage therapists.

Massage has long been a part of a runner’s training program. You’ve no doubt heard many of the benefits of massage: improved circulation, less muscle soreness, and a removal of exercise waste products like lactic acid.

But much of what we think is true actually isn’t. Here’s a quick example: lactic acid (or lactate) is removed from your muscles within minutes of accumulating. And it’s not actually responsible for sore muscles.

Here’s what Scientific American has to say about lactate:

Contrary to popular opinion, lactate or, as it is often called, lactic acid buildup is not responsible for the muscle soreness felt in the days following strenuous exercise. 

Alex Hutchinson further supports this position in his fantastic book Cardio or Weights?

Not only is lactate cleared from your blood stream relatively quickly after you stop running fast, it’s not the culprit of muscle soreness. That’s mostly due to cell damage in your muscles.

So what are the actual benefits of massage for runners? If massage doesn’t clear lactate from your muscles, how can it help your running?

The Benefits of Massage For Runners

This article is for runners, so I’ll be focusing strictly on why massage can be so beneficial for runners (not necessarily the general public). If you have a runner friend who either hates massage or thinks it can’t help them, send them a link to this article!

The major benefit of massage is that it relaxes tense muscles and removes adhesions or minor scar tissue between muscles and fascia, a fancy word for the sheath or casing that surrounds your muscles. Unneeded tension and adhesions can restrict movement and impair your range of motion, potentially leading to abnormal movement patterns that can cause overuse injuries.

Greg Lehman, a physiotherapist and chiropractor, says that another major benefit of massage for runners is pain relief.

“Pain changes how we function and can even inhibit healing. Massage may also help with recovery after a workout and may help get us out of a stress dominated state of our nervous system.”

His last point is fascinating because relaxation is an overlooked aspect of training. Stress from work or your personal life can negatively impact your training and ultimately how well you adapt to workouts. After all, adaptation is simply your body’s reaction to a stress (in this case, running). But stress in other areas of life can hinder your body’s ability to adapt because it’s overloaded.

Greg is an award-winning researcher with over 15 years of clinical experience. This insight showcases why I chose to interview him for the Injury Prevention for Runners program, where we did a Q&A on injury prevention for runners.

Recovery is the other major benefit of massage. Like Greg mentions, massage can reduce pain and the intensity of muscle soreness after a grueling workout or marathon. Some studies indicate that massage can reduce inflammation, improve immune function, and reduce stress hormones like cortisol.

While massage won’t clear lactic acid or any other waste products from your muscles, it will promote more circulation to your muscles. Better circulation is what will aid your recovery (which is the same reason why compression socks work).

These benefits suggest you can recover faster after a hard session and be ready for another sooner. Running more fast workouts – or higher mileage – is one of the best ways to become a better runner. And massage can help you do that while mitigating the injury risk.

When is the Best Time to Schedule a Massage?

Massage for Runners

Quite a few runners have asked me if they should get a massage the day before a race. Or if a massage right after a marathon is a good idea.

The answer to both questions is no. Massage right after a hard race or workout (or maybe even the day after if you’re still significantly sore) is counterproductive to the recovery process. And massage right before a race might leave you sore on the starting line.

Think of massage as a workout where deep pressure can cause some muscle soreness. You don’t want to layer too many sources of muscle soreness so it’s best to wait 1-2 days after a hard workout or race to get your massage.

If you want to get a massage before a race, it’s best to do it 2-3 days before. Massage can sometimes require “recovery” so you want to wait until that wobbly feeling disappears. Fear not, your spaghetti legs will return to normal after 1-2 days and you won’t feel like Gumbi.

For those runners not racing right now, you should still follow these principles around your hard workouts or long runs.

Not running any difficult workouts or long runs and just want a good massage? Get it anytime!

What Are the Best Types of Massage for Runners?

There are three types of massage that are best for runners and all are used in different situations and at different times.

Deep Tissue: this is what most of us think about when we think about a “sports massage” – a massage that works the entire muscle while focusing on specific tight spots in both the deep muscle and also the superficial layers of fascia.

This type of massage is more holistic than the next two I’ll talk about, so this is best used during periods of hard training. Since it focuses on your entire muscle, rather than a particular trouble area, it’s great when you’re training a lot but don’t have a specific injury.

Active Release Technique (A.R.T.): this massage modality has become popular in the last decade. Combining trigger point massage with movement by the therapist, this type of massage is designed to break up scar tissue and improve mobility.

A.R.T. is best used when you have a specific injury where scar tissue may be impairing the healing and recovery process. A good therapist can determine where any adhesions may be and then break them up while improving functional flexibility in the tissue.

Swedish: This is your mom’s massage – a relaxing, typically soft-pressure massage that doesn’t go deep into the muscles. While it likely won’t help with muscle adhesions or scar tissue, a more relaxing massage still has many benefits for runners.

Before a race, a Swedish massage can help improve relaxation, muscle tension, and lower your stress levels without damaging or stressing the tissue. Just what you want pre-competition!

Massage Tips & Tricks

All this talk about massage makes me want to spend thousands on healing, therapeutic massage. But who has that kind of money to throw at expensive massage treatments?

Thankfully, you don’t need to invest that much in professional massages (though there’s nothing quite like them).

Self-massage offers many of the same benefits and you only need a few simple tools:

  • A foam roller is your best option at only about $20-$25 and can be used for years.
  • The Stick is another option, which I prefer for the calves and hamstrings. It offers a slightly deeper massage in my experience.
  • massage ball can go deeper and be used well for specific trigger points.

But be careful: deeper pressure isn’t necessarily better. Muscles can tighten up as a defense mechanism, so stick with relatively gentle pressure.

Finally, one last tip from Greg Lehman: find a massage therapist who listens to you and pays attention to how your body responds.

I’ll add that if your masseuse is also a runner, that can be helpful as they really get the sport and its demands. This goes for doctors and physical therapists, too!

Question for you:

How have you successfully used a particular type of massage in your training?

Or, why do you think massage isn’t helpful for you?

Leave your reply in the comments below.

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{ 11 comments }

Joe C

Along with helping with recovery, massages offer motivation. My fiancé and I use them as the carrot at the end of training and a reward for running a great race. It makes it easier to go on long runs and train for a race when you know you will treat yourself to a nice massage a few days after. It’s even nicer when that place offers a nice glass of champagne and chocolate with the deep tissue massage!

Don Kiely

Thanks, Jason! As always some great information. And I’m glad of the confirmation of the “when” to get a massage, relative to a race or hard effort.

I usually get what’s called a sports massage, which I think is what you’re calling a deep tissue massage. It’s one of the things in my life that hurts so good! I got one early last week, and ran my first 50K on Saturday, a very hilly trail ultra in West Virginia. Because I was focused on training for Boston over the winter, I didn’t do a lot of intense hill workouts in preparation for the 50K. Today, two days after, I’m still sore. So I think I’ll try to get an appointment for Wednesday or Thursday this week.

This sort of regime has worked well for me. And I use a stick pretty regularly. We have a couple of foam rollers, but I’ve used those less.

Joe C: A reward? It’s good, but for me it’s usually pretty painful, in a good way. (And I usually wait until any muscle soreness from the race or hard workout has dissipated, so it’s not just that!) But…I’ll have to find a place that offers champagne and chocolate! Haven’t had a masseuse offer me that yet! :-)

missyblurkit

Thanx for the useful advice on when to schedule in the massages.

Love massages as a general rule. The foam roller and these days an iced water bottle is my good friend for self massages. Does wonders for my itb and hamstring that stayed good as I increased my training for Standard Chartered Hong Kong Marathon.

Good old Chinese massage is a lovely deep tissue that I have every month to ease the knots and tension points especially the shoulders. I stay away though if its a week from races. There is always the fear of over working the muscles when the therapist goes ‘too deep’.

Joe C’s idea of a reward after a long run is good. Hmmm champagnes and chocolates with a massage thrown in as well…no one will say no to it. Now to search for a masseur who does that (other than the hubby. Lolz)

Rooney

I find the active release technique helps a lot. Jason, I hope you don’t mind me asking where I can locate your myrtl routine. It is part of my training programme you created for me but I can’t find it.

Best,

Rooney

Liz Tricozzi

I usually get a massage about every month just because it helps with the relaxation and recovery aspect. I have a very stressful job, so it helps with “life” and running. My masseuse knows I’m a runner and my specific problem areas. Another tool to use!

Bain

All runners should know about The Melt Method, Yoga Tune-Up, and Trigger Point Therapy Tools (especially The Ultimate Six, so helpful in keeping your running body running!).

Ron

ART helped me kick start recovery from ITBS. It was the strength and mobility gains that kept it at bay. I still follow through with an ART session very few mths as a preventative bit of medicine.

Per using the massage ball I’d recommend a lacrosse ball instead, inexpensive, and tough. The trigger point gear is just over inflated pricing. It takes time to get used to, however mixing the roller on my glutes, with the lacrosse ball I’m putting up big mileage and now running back to back to back marathons in my lead up to my first 100miler. I also use it to manually roll out my calves. It doesn’t prevent the tired/sore muscles, but my IT injury that followed me for years haven’t flared up in a very long time.

Lindsay Knake

ART worked well for me with hamstring tendinopathy during marathon training. My hamstring is not 100 percent, but ART and foam rolling helps to keep the discomfort at a low level. It does not appear to be getting worse.

The relaxation part of massage helps me realize how much tension I keep in my body, and I can do yoga and breathe it out to relax. That helps with mobility and, frankly, just feels better.

Dan

This is really detailed stuff … might have to link this post up from our wellness blog, as runners in our community would benefit from this advice on massage!

Morty

Great, I need to have a nice back massage too cause every time after running I have this stabbing pain. Thanks for post!

Sandy

The tip about when to schedule a massage is great! I usually want one right after a hard workout, but will definitely wait two days next time!

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