Do sports massages improve performance and recovery?

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Do sports massages improve strength-, sprint- or endurance performance? And what is the effect on flexibility, fatigue and recovery? Every professional athlete uses sports massages, but is there any evidence to back this up? Let’s find out!

Let’s be honest. We all love a massage. If you can get one, any excuse is good. But if you are interested in whether this is going to help your sports performance or recovery, this is the article you are looking for! We are going to give you all the answers based on a recent (May 2020) scientific review and analysis.

Does sports massage improve performance?

Does a massage increase sport performance? Some studies choose to do a pre-event massage and then tested sport performance. Some studies added a workout before the massage, resulting in a workout – sports massage – performance test routine.

To see whether sports massages outperformed no sports massage, researchers used a control group or a control limb. The latter I found quite funny. An example would be to give your left leg a massage and neglect your right leg. You then test which leg performs better.

Strength (12 studies, 346 participants)

It does not matter whether you look at quadriceps strength or boxing strength. Strength after a Wingate test or after running a marathon. Concentric or eccentric strength. Strength after a short or long sports massage. Strength after 1 massage or 10 weeks of daily massages.

The results show sports massages won’t significantly improve your strength, and some may even worsen it. Figure 1 shows that the average effect of sports massages on strength performance (dot in the middle) is positive, but small and not significant. The confidence interval shows that sports massages can both have a negative or a positive effect on strength.

You can’t expect better performance results after a sports massage

Jump & Sprint (5 studies, 132 participants / 7 studies, 257 participants resp.)

Sports massages did not significantly help volleyball or basketball players in their jump performance. When looking at their sprints, sports massages were even associated with slower sprints. Cycling sprinters showed similar results, although one study showed significant better results after a massage.

When combining all study results, we again see no significant improve in jump or sprint performance after sports massage. Figure 1

Endurance (3 studies, 96 participants)

As a cyclist I remember we started our race warmup with a little massage. Some of my teammates did not want the massage. They were scared they would lose the right muscle tension. But what does science say?

Not a lot… Since the results are very positive or very negative, we can’t draw a conclusion yet. Only 3 studies met the requirements for this review study, which could be a cause for a wide range of results. On average the results were small but positive, but the range is between very negative and very positive. Figure 1. We’ll have to dive deeper into the endurance & sports massages question later on.

Figure 1 A positive SMD (dot in the middle) means that on average sports massages work, a negative SMD means that on average sports massages don’t work. The higher the number, the bigger the effect. An effect of 0.2 is small, 0.5 = medium and 0.8 = large. The horizontal bar shows the range of outcomes you would get 95% of the time. When the horizontal bar includes positive and negative SMD’s, the results are not significant. In other words: sports massages could have a negative effect just as easy as a positive effect.

The overall conclusion of this data is clear: you can’t expect better performance results after a massage. This does not mean sports massages are nonsense, it just doesn’t enhance performance. Or at least not significantly. If the average small but positive results of strength, jump and endurance are appealing to you, you should consider testing it yourself. Do keep in mind that there might have been a placebo effect in these studies, and in your experiment as well. This would reduce the positive effect even more.

Does sports massage improve recovery?

When looking at Muscle fatigue (5 studies, 171 participants), Flexibility (7 studies, 246 participants) and Muscle Soreness (10 studies, 311 participants), we’ll slowly see different results.

Do you perceive more or less muscle fatigue after exercise that includes a sports massage afterwards? Although most studies had a (close to) significant positive effect, one study found boxers perceived more fatigue after a sports massage compared with control. Therefore, overall results show no significant positive effect, even though on average the effect size was medium. Figure 2

When looking at flexibility and muscle soreness, we finally see a significant positive effect of sports massages. Although that does not mean every study found significant results, it does mean that the results are significant on average. Sports massages have a large effect on both flexibility and muscle soreness. Figure 2

Figure 2 Since the 95% confidence interval shows no negative results, sports massages have a signifcant positive effect on flexibility and muscle soreness.

My personal experience is quite similar. I would compare sports massages with stretching and think of it as a way to improve recovery, not performance. If it does improve recovery and maybe even prevent injuries, then in the long run it could improve performance because you can train more/better.

Would you like to read more about recovery? Check all recovery content!

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