I’ve had my share of massages. Not of the John Travolta variety, mind you -- but when I’m feeling particularly wrecked, I’ll drop into my friendly neighborhood sports therapy center and spend an hour getting worked over by Lois, my regular masseuse. Lois is old enough to be my grandmother (and often dispenses grandmotherly advice in the middle of my session, like “remember, don’t text while driving!” and “don’t hunch your shoulders!”), but the woman has hands of steel. She could probably snap my spine in two with her bear-claw-hands.
I don’t go to relax. Despite the soothing spa music that's piped into the rooms, I find it difficult to chill out when Lois is vigorously digging her elbows between my muscle tissues or driving her knuckles into my IT bands. The first time I got a massage from her, I puffed out my chest and told her she should apply as much pressure as possible. She did just that. And now, I feel weird about admitting to her that she's regularly testing the limits of my pain tolerance (which is admittedly pretty low).
Still, while part of me is biting my lip in pain, the other part of me actually enjoys the experience. Plus, I’ve always felt like I recover from my workouts faster after getting a painfully good massage from Lois.
But does massage really bolster recovery? We know that intense exercise causes micro-tears in muscle fibers that trigger an auto-immune reaction (a.k.a. inflammation). Does massage help bring that inflammation down?
Some studies have suggested that there is “little support for the use of massage to aid muscle recovery or performance after intense exercise.” In fact, one study noted that massage actually impairs blood flow and therefore impedes lactic acid removal from muscles after intense exercise -- the opposite of what most assumed to be true. This was measured by examining blood samples taken from athletes who participated in the study.
More recently, however, a group of Canadian researchers took a slightly more in-depth look at what happens to athletes’ muscles when massaged post-exercise.
Their experiment required having people exercise to exhaustion and undergo five incisions in their legs in order to obtain muscle tissue for analysis. Despite the hurdles, the scientists still managed to find 11 brave young male volunteers...
On a first visit, they biopsied one leg of each subject at rest. At a second session, they had them vigorously exercise on a stationary bicycle for more than an hour until they could go no further. Then they massaged one thigh of each subject for 10 minutes, leaving the other to recover on its own. Immediately after the massage, they biopsied the thigh muscle in each leg again. After allowing another two-and-a-half hours of rest, they did a third biopsy to track the process of muscle injury and repair.Yeesh. And ouch.
But in comparing the tissue from the massaged and unmassaged legs, the researchers found that massage “reduced the production of compounds called cytokines, which play a critical role in inflammation. Massage also stimulated mitochondria, the tiny powerhouses inside cells that convert glucose into the energy essential for cell function and repair.”
“The bottom line is that there appears to be a suppression of pathways in inflammation and an increase in mitochondrial biogenesis,” helping the muscle adapt to the demands of increased exercise, said the senior author, Dr. Mark A. Tarnopolsky.
Dr. Tarnopolsky, a professor of pediatrics and medicine at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, said that massage works quite differently from Nsaids and other anti-inflammatory drugs, which reduce inflammation and pain but may actually retard healing. Many people, for instance, pop an aspirin or Aleve at the first sign of muscle soreness. “There’s some theoretical concern that there is a maladaptive response in the long run if you’re constantly suppressing inflammation with drugs,” he said. “With massage, you can have your cake and eat it too—massage can suppress inflammation and actually enhance cell recovery.”Lesson: When you’ve been beat down by intense exercise, don’t reach for the ibuprofen. Go book a massage instead.
Too expensive? Invest in a foam roller and some lacrosse balls instead. (Another side benefit to doing deep-tissue mobility work in the privacy of your own home rather than getting a professional massage: There’s no need to worry about accidentally releasing an errant fart.)