If you think massage is all about lavender and wind chimes, think again. Not only do elite athletes use massage as a secret weapon to speed recovery, most NBA, NFL, and MLB teams also employ full-time massage therapists. Massage was reported to be a key factor that helped Cy Young Award–winning Giants pitcher Jake Peavy getting his starting spot back. Plus, science has confirmed the effectiveness of massages in relieving pain, lowering blood pressure, and reducing stress.
But not just any massage will do. Here’s how to find the right treatment—and the right therapist—for your specific needs.
Massage not only loosens you up, it also aids recovery post-workout. “Muscles need nutrients to recover, and massage improves circulation, bringing those nutrients faster,” says sports medicine chiropractor Anthony Gustin, M.S. “When you work out, tissues get broken up and create waste; massage brings oxygen, amino acids, and metabolites to help repair fibers.”
WHAT TO GET: Sports massage, a deeper technique. Have the therapist focus on your most-worked muscles and stroke up, to move blood toward the heart.
WHEN TO GET IT: At least twice a month during intense training, ideally within hours of a tough workout. “You should also do self-massage at least three to five times a week,” Gustin says. Plan a massage for your recovery day.
A study conducted by Cedars-Sinai showed that massage increases lymphocytes and white blood cells—which help prevent disease—and slows the release of cortisol and vasopressin, hormones related to stress. “When muscles contract, lymph moves through your blood, helping to circulate white blood cells,” Gustin says. “Massage has a similar effect, moving lymph through the body.”
WHAT TO GET: Lymphatic massage or lymph drainage— total-body techniques using gentle strokes to move lymph fluid toward “drainage ports” under the arms and near the groin. “Regular massage can still help,” notes Gustin, “but the gentler technique is more effective.”
WHEN TO GET IT: Twice a month, preferably on a rest day.
Massage increases your range of motion by breaking up adhesions and reducing scar tissue in tight muscles. “It also releases tightness,” Gustin says. “When you’re in one posture for 20 minutes, your muscles tighten and ‘mold,' so releasing tension through massage can get you into a more neutral position.”
WHAT TO GET: Deep tissue or myofascial massage. This targets the shoulders, hips, ankles, wrists, and mid-back, which tend to get tightest simply from typical overuse or seated inactivity.
WHEN TO GET IT: Three to four times a month is best; but if you have a specific problem area, even once a month will make a difference. “Adhesions take time to resolve,” Gustin says, “so you can taper frequency as you improve.”
More and more studies are showing how dangerous it can be to have excess stress and anxiety— the ensuing flood of cortisol can weaken the immune system and elevate blood pressure, and massage can fight that. “Massage boosts serotonin [a feel-good relaxation hormone that regulates sleep] and lowers blood pressure and heart rate,” Gustin says. A recent study in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine showed that just 45–60 minutes of relaxation massage lowered subjects’ heart rates by more than 10 beats/minute.
WHAT TO GET: Swedish massage, which features relaxing, rolling strokes. The soothing effects are nearly instantaneous.
WHEN TO GET IT: Any time you feel you want to relax or sleep better. To maximize the results, shoot for the end of the day so you can roll into bed within a few hours.
Science backs the benefits of massage in pain relief across the board. “Muscles in pain are contracted and tight, and can’t release themselves,” says P.J. Hair, a massage therapist who’s worked with Olympic athletes in Salt Lake City. “Tight muscles also put pressure on the nerves and blood vessels, causing even more pain.”
WHAT TO GET: Trigger point massage—a technique in which the therapist presses on tight areas that radiate pain, sending the nervous system the message that it needs to let the muscles release.
WHEN TO GET IT: “If the pain is due to an injury, try to go for a massage right after the tissue has healed, to improve range of motion and prevent chronic pain,” Hair says. “You should notice a difference within six sessions.”