Personally I believe massage is very useful for athletes as a form of system maintenance, recovery, and performance enhancement. I have one on hand for the elite track and field group that train with me so they can use him when needed. I think if you’re going to train very hard on a consistent basis that massage at the hands of a skilled practitioner is one of the ‘must haves’ for soft-tissue health. And I think the psychosomatic benefits are undisputed.
However, despite a growing body of research, the mechanisms of benefit of this recovery modality are still poorly understood. This research abstract was recently posted to the Supertraining listserv and it highlights how poorly understood the physiological outcomes of massage are.
Massage Impairs Postexercise Muscle Blood Flow and Lactic Acid Removal
WILTSHIRE, E. VICTORIA; POITRAS, VERONICA; PAK, MELISSA; HONG, TERENCE; RAYNER, JAY; TSCHAKOVSKY, MICHAEL E.
Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise:
June 2010 – Volume 42 – Issue 6 – pp 1062-1071
PURPOSE: This study tested the hypothesis that one of the ways sports massage aids muscle recovery from exercise is by increasing muscle blood flow to improve lactic acid removal.
METHODS: Twelve subjects performed 2 min of strenuous isometric handgrip (IHG) exercise at 40% maximum voluntary contraction to elevate forearm muscle lactic acid. Forearm blood flow (FBF; Doppler and Echo ultrasound of the brachial artery) and deep venous forearm blood lactate and H+ concentration ([La-], [H+]) were measured every minute for 10 min post-IHG under three conditions: passive (passive rest), active (rhythmic exercise at 10% maximum voluntary contraction), and massage (effleurage and pÃ©trissage). Arterialized [La-] and [H+] from a superficial heated hand vein was measured at baseline.
RESULTS: Data are presented as mean +/- SE. Venoarterial [La-] difference ([La-]v-a) at 30 s of post-IHG was the same across conditions (passive = 6.1 +/- 0.6 mmol x L(-1), active = 5.7 +/- 0.6 mmol x L(-1), massage = 5.5 +/- 0.6 mmol x L(-1), NS), whereas FBF was greater in passive (766 +/- 101 mL x min(-1)) versus active (614 +/- 62 mL x min(-1), P = 0.003) versus massage (540 +/- 60 mL x min(-1), P < 0.0001). Total FBF area under the curve (AUC) for 10 min after handgrip was significantly higher in passive versus massage (4203 +/- 531 vs 3178 +/- 304 mL, P = 0.024) but not versus active (3584 +/- 284 mL, P = 0.217). La(-)- efflux (FBF x [La-]v-a) AUC mirrored FBF AUC (passive = 20.5 +/- 2.8 mmol vs massage = 14.7 +/- 1.6 mmol, P = 0.03, vs active = 15.4 +/- 1.9 mmol, P = 0.064). H+ efflux (FBF x [H+]v-a) was greater in passive versus massage at 30 s (2.2 +/- 0.4e(-5) vs 1.3 +/- 0.2e(-5) mmol, P < 0.001) and 1.5 min (1.0 +/- 0.2e(-5) vs 0.6 +/- 0.09e(-5) mmol, P = 0.003) after IHG.
CONCLUSIONS: Massage impairs La(-) and H+ removal from muscle after strenuous exercise by mechanically impeding blood flow.
Part of the problem is examining ‘massage’ is akin to examining ‘running.’ That is, it’s a huge umbrella term with many potential sub-categories. Even when specific methods are examined, as is the case in this study, the actual methods may differ. And ultimately, the outcome of any service (whether coaching, massage, auto-repair, etc) is determined by the skill and experience of the provider. Either way, the study is an interesting look that may debunk some long-held beliefs about the benefits of massage. Could these be due to errors in research design? Possibly. Perhaps the positive effects on blood flow are delayed. More likely though we need to look elsewhere to explain the benefits of effleurage and pÃ©trissage forms of massage.