Introduction

People often say that health and fitness is free, and to some extent this is true – however, for some it can amount to a small fortune.

Let’s take a closer look at some of these hidden costs. For starters, eating regular, healthy and nutritious meals can be expensive, especially if you’re trying to feed several mouths. This doesn’t even take into account the various health and fitness supplements which are advocated by a large percentage of the sporting population. The addition of essential vitamins and minerals alongside a tub of protein and creatine can soon start to move into the hundreds.

This is before you’ve even stepped foot inside the gym. Joining fees and monthly membership costs soon add up, and then of course you need the correct athletic attire in order to blend subtly into the background rather than sticking out like a sore thumb. Is this painting a familiar picture for some of you? Obviously the person that started the “fitness is free” rumour didn’t account for all these extras!

Although the list is potentially endless, there is one further expense that many individuals shell out for on a regular basis; sports massage. So just how good is sports massage? What effects can it provoke on your body and mind? You would surely only spend your hard earned cash on a sports massage if it produced the desired outcomes.

With all this in mind, the purpose of this article is to take a closer look at the effects of sports massage and the various physical and physiological benefits it claims to offer. We will place particular emphasis on its effectiveness at reducing the delayed onset of muscular soreness (or DOMS for short).

Delayed Onset Of Muscular Soreness (DOMS)

So what is DOMS? This phenomenon has been previously described as “skeletal muscle pain that follows novel eccentric exercise” (Armstrong, 1984). Although the intensity of soreness can vary, DOMS often follows a similar pattern: increasing during a 24 hour period following cessation of exercise, peaking between 24-48 hours and then starting to subside and ease off during a 5-7 day period (Powers, 1996).

If you’ve ever undertaken a strenuous training session that you’ve felt in your target muscles for several days afterwards, you’ve experienced DOMS and its characteristics first hand. Symptoms can include a feeling of stiffness, tenderness and aching and although these might bring about a pain response, they rarely require medical attention.

There are various plausible hypothesises regarding the DOMS phenomenon, although general consensus states that it is caused by initial muscle damage through vigorous exercise followed by ion imbalances, inflammation and pain (Clarkson, 1999).

If you train infrequently, currently split your training into alternative body parts or can simply cope with the pain response produced through DOMS then you can sometimes get away with doing very little other than training through the discomfort. For others, this is simply not an option and alternative options of removing or alleviating this DOMS response are required and sought. Light exercise and stretching have been suggested as suitable strategies, however previous research has suggested that these are not truly effective (Bougie, 1997).

Sports Massage

The alternative logical and suitable strategy, not mentioned above, is sports massage. This is a popular choice amongst sporting individuals and it is believed if delivered correctly has the ability to be effective at removing DOMS (Ernst, 1998).

Despite a considerable amount of research into this particular topic of interest, the results and findings are inconclusive. Many of these issues relate to research validity and the ability to transfer results to a real life setting. With different research investigations utilising different massage techniques, treatment lengths and application times, it’s hard to generate any definitive cause and effect relationship.

Research Investigation Into The Effects Of Sports Massage

In 2003, Hilbert et al. attempted to rectify previous conflicting findings through their aptly titled research investigation: ‘The effects of massage on delayed onset muscle soreness’.

This investigation utilised 18 male and female participants, all of whom were suitably screened to ensure their characteristics matched and they weren’t suffering with any injuries at the time of the research. Following a familiarisation period, participants were required to complete 6 sets of 10 maximal eccentric contractions, utilising their right hamstring muscle group. Variables around the exercise testing were controlled and maintained at all times.

Participants were then required to produce 5 more maximal eccentric contractions straight away and at 2 hours post exercise. Following this, participants were then assigned to a massage or control group. The massage group received a 20 minute treatment session. Further tests, both physical and psychological, were obtained from all participants at 6, 24 and 48 hours post exercise.

Results

Results indicated that there were no significant differences between either group in terms of muscle strength and range of motion post exercise.

In terms of muscular soreness, both groups had enhanced levels of discomfort post exercise; however the control group recorded higher scores than the massage group at 48 hours post exercise with regards to their soreness intensity. However, this was not significant.

Results from this investigation indicate that sports massage, administered post exercise, did not offer any additional significant benefits in terms of muscle strength or range of motion. The only advantage of sports massage during this investigation was noted 48 hours post exercise, where the massage group recorded lower soreness intensity scores than that of the control group; these findings, however, were not significantly different.

These findings echo that of previous research, which suggested that the effects of sports massage on DOMS might be more psychological than physiological (Weinberg, 1988).

Final Word

If you’re a sporting individual that undergoes regular sports massage or have been contemplating sports massage following a strenuous session, then what do these findings mean to you? If you were to transfer findings with direct application then research suggests that no physiological gains – i.e. strength or range of motion – will be achieved through this treatment strategy.

It does suggest that sports massage might provide you with some psychological benefits, i.e. a lesser intensity pain response to the DOMS, although this is not likely to be significant and you will still experience some degree of pain.

At this point you might be thinking sports massage simply isn’t worth the money and if you were to base your decision solely on this research investigation then you would be right. However, as with anything in health and fitness, what works or doesn’t work for another individual, might be just what you and your body need to enhance your performance levels.

Furthermore, this research investigation focused solely on sports massage application to alleviate the effects of DOMS. It didn’t consider its proposed effects on injury prevention, correcting muscle imbalances or simple relaxation. These are other key variables where massage can be considered essential.

With all the conflicting research results and findings out there, the only sure way to determine whether sports massage works for you from a physiological or psychological perspective is to try it for yourself.

Make sure you let us know if you have tried sports massage before and whether you experienced any benefits in the comments section below.