Study: Massage Can Help Recovery
By Cynthia Billhartz Gregorian McClatchy News Service
Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps got a massage twice a day in Beijing. His teammate, Dara Torres, had two massage therapists on stand-by.
And a bunch of sedated rabbits in Ohio recently had massage performed on their legs after bouts of intense exercise.
Phelps, 23, made history by winning eight gold medals. Torres, 41, became the oldest swimmer to compete in an Olympic event and win a silver medal.
As for the rabbits? They might have proved scientifically what athletes and trainers have long believed: Massage really does help with muscle recovery.
According to a recent study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, researchers at Ohio State University found that Swedish massage helped speed muscle recovery at the cellular level for rabbits who got mechanically intense exercise.
Benefits of Swedish massage
Athletes also use Swedish massage – stroking, kneading and pressing soft tissue. Thomas Best, professor of family medicine at Ohio State University and senior author of the rabbit study, said it’s too soon for clinical trials on humans. But he considers the rabbits a strong start toward confirming massage’s benefits to athletes.
Best said he hopes further research “will dictate how much massage is needed, for how long and when it should be performed after exercise.”
In the study, researchers used a mechanical device to create a motion similar to the way quadriceps in human thighs move when running downhill.
Afterward, some rabbits got Swedish massage, others did not but were rested. Scientists found that the muscles of the massaged rabbits had improved function, less swelling and fewer signs of inflammation than did muscles in non-massaged rabbits.
What the St. Louis Rams do
Those findings don’t surprise Jim Anderson, athletic trainer for the St. Louis Rams. He remembers players getting massaged 25 years ago. More than half the players get massages now, he said.
They hire their own massage therapists, who massage them the day after a game, Anderson said. Many follow up with another the day before a game to loosen their muscles, a process that relaxes them mentally.
“The way their bodies feel after a game, if something can alleviate that pain and soreness, they look at it as something good,” Anderson said. “It gets fresh (oxygenated) blood in there, and getting fresh blood to an area helps speed recovery.”
Muscles produce lactic acid during intense workouts, said Ethel Frese, a professor of physical therapy at St. Louis University and a cardiovascular and pulmonary specialist.
The more intense the workout, the more lactic acid is produced. And the greater the accumulation of lactic acid, the more fatigued – and painful – the muscle becomes.
Lactic acid will dissipate on its own, but enhancing blood circulation helps get rid of it quicker. That helps relieve muscle cramps and spasms, she said.
Rams players make six- and often seven-figure salaries so they can afford massages whenever they want. College athletic programs and their athletes, on the other hand, usually can’t afford such luxuries.
At Washington University, for instance, a chiropractic-massage therapist visits once a week, providing services to the all student athletes. But the time slots are limited.
Meanwhile Rick Larsen, head athletic trainer, and his team of therapists provide physical therapy, which might include massage of specific body parts, to injured athletes.
“We use it as an adjunct for other types of modalities that enhance the healing process, such as electronic muscle stimulation, heat, cold, ultrasound,” Larsen said.
Swim coach Brad Shively estimates that if Washington U. has 300 athletes, a third of them could benefit greatly from massage at any given time.
“Massage makes a great difference,” Shively said. “My swimmers use rollers on their legs and shoulders after intense workouts, and it’s manual and self-applied, but it works.”
At national competitions, he said, it’s not unusual for swim teams – Division I ones in particular – to bring their own massage therapists.
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