Massage for Runners Isn’t Just About Feeling Good

BY: Ashley Hamer |Apr 11, 2016

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For many, running a marathon is one of the most impressive and rewarding things they’ll ever do. It’s also one of the most challenging, and it takes an incredible toll on the body. With each of the 30,000–50,000 steps it takes to run 26.2 miles—to say nothing of the months of training beforehand—the musculoskeletal system absorbs an impact up to four times the runner’s body weight, causing muscle damage and inflammation that can last for weeks after.

Often, runners will ease their aches and pains through massage. But beyond making them feel better, does massage actually do anything? And if so, how many massages should they incorporate into their marathon training?

For answers, we turned to two sources: Aleksandra Moe, DPT, a physical therapist at Illinois Bone & Joint Institute, and Ursula Farry, a 10-year veteran massage therapist at The Bodylux Rx in Chicago.

What are the benefits of massage for runners?

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For one, it helps reverse the damage of repeated workouts and grueling races. According to Moe and Farry, the soothing techniques go beyond relaxation to actually help your body heal more quickly and prevent future injury.

“For avid runners, I believe skilled therapeutic massage is a necessity and not a luxury,” Moe said.

“It improves blood circulation,” Farry said. “Without circulation, the healing process is not going to start because you don’t have blood. And everything comes from the blood: you have nutrition in the blood, you have oxygen in the blood. If the muscle is extremely tight, it shrinks. It feels like an old sponge, and nothing is going to go through.”

The muscles and tendons get benefits, too. “You reduce the chance [of injury] by increasing the range of motion in your joints,” said Farry. “Especially in the areas most prone to affect performance, like your legs—you don’t want your IT band [the tendon that runs on the outside of the thigh from the hip to the knee] being tight or your glutes being tight, because if everything cramps up, then you’re stuck.”

"For avid runners, I believe skilled therapeutic massage is a necessity and not a luxury."

– Aleksandra Moe, doctor of physical therapy 

Moe agreed. “For runners, the two areas that are in need of attention are definitely the iliotibial band (IT band), which responds well to trigger-point release, and [the area] around the hips such as the gluteal muscles and piriformis,” a small, pear-shaped muscle in the glute area. Overuse injuries in these areas are common, so keeping them limber and flexible is essential to preventing injury.

How many massages does a marathon runner need?

Farry says that all depends on your training regimen and your budget, but in general, her magic number is at least one massage per month. “Thirty days is a very long time … and if you exercise every day, your body will start telling you, ‘Oh, I feel cramped here, I feel tightness here.’ If there’s a little bit of discomfort, your body is telling you, ‘I’m not really balanced.’”

The massage-for-runners playbook

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During training

For the average marathon training plan, a session per month means four to five massages before the big event. These massages help fight off any nagging aches and pains that may creep up over many long runs, interval workouts, and tempo sessions, and they work to keep injury at bay.

"I help you to balance everything."

– Ursula Farry, massage therapist

Stretching is a big part of Farry’s approach. “Lots of runners don’t stretch a lot,” she said. “I always implement that into my massage if I see that the range of motion is really not very good.” The strategy she prefers is Muscle Release Technique, which combines massage with guided stretching and focused breathing. “I use short stretches, only a two-second stretch. … I prepare the muscle, stretch them, hold them, then come back to the normal position.”

But in general, every body is different, and every massage will have a different focus. “I help you to balance everything,” she said. “Sometimes your legs will get tight, and that is going to pull you from the shoulders, or [sometimes] something gets stuck in the hip. … We work it out, loosen up the muscles, and then you’re OK.”

One note: if you plan to run the day of your massage, Farry recommends doing it before the session, not after. A massage beforehand can leave you feeling too lethargic to run, whereas getting one afterward can help you recover from the workout.

In between appointments

We can’t all have a daily massage, but that doesn’t stop our bodies from having problems. That’s where self-massage—or, for the more technical term, self-myofascial release—comes in. There is a wide variety of massage tools on the market, but most runners need only one or two stand-bys.

“In order to tend to [trouble spots] in between massage, most runners own or are recommended to own a foam roll,” Moe said. Runners can roll this 2- to 3-foot-long cylinder of dense, molded foam along their IT bands, calves, quads, glutes, back, and even hip flexors to release painful knots, or trigger points, that form during training.

Moe also recommends picking up a calf-stretch wedge to get a deeper stretch in the calf muscles, “as well as a spiky ball or frozen water bottle to massage the arches of the feet to alleviate pain from plantar fasciitis.” As a physical therapist, Moe also stresses that running itself isn’t enough—strength-training exercises, such as clams, leg lifts, and other lateral moves that strengthen the muscles left underused by the forward-backward motion of running, are essential to avoiding injury.

After the marathon

The main focus of this important session is to heal the damage done by those 26.2 miles. Therapists will work to get blood flowing through the damaged muscle fibers and help the body flush out metabolic waste.

It’s also a reward for a job well done. “After the marathon, you want to get your body to recover quickly,” Farry said. “You might feel extremely sore everywhere … even emotionally you can feel drained. So it releases endorphins and just calms you down and brings you to peace. Yes, you’re done with the marathon, and now your body can recover and relax.”

Photos: Marathon 15 by BU Interactive News under CC BY 2.0; Crimestoppers’ invisible pillow by Crimestoppers under CC BY 2.0; massage after a long day by Crimestoppers under CC BY 2.0.

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