Best Types of Massages for Runners

Best Types of Massages for Runners

As a runner, I know the importance of training and building up mileage. But as a Physical Therapist and a Sports Massage Specialist, my job is also to educate you on the importance of not only properly progressing mileage, but also on the importance of posture, fixing muscular imbalances, gait training, and rest and recovery. One of the best ways for the muscles of a runner to recover is by receiving regular massages. 

Why do runners need massages?

Runners end up doing a lot of high-impact training which is a shorthand term relating to the physics involved in running. Aside from an individual’s conditioning, alignment, flexibility, mental and physical strength, power, and speed, a runner must also compete with external forces including gravity, body weight, and ground reaction forces. A combination of the physical work put into a run plus the additional forces and impact mean a lot gets absorbed by the muscles and body. Over time repeated high impact work can cause inflammation and microdamage to the tissues. To counter the stress and reduce damage and injury, massages are a perfect way to help repair muscles and other tissues.

What are the Benefits of Massage?

Reduce stiffness and pain: Massage can help reduce inflammation, scar tissue, and adhesions which can reduce muscular tension and soreness while also improving range of motion. 

Improve circulation: Massage can help to improve blood flow while at the same time release toxins like lactic acid which reduces muscle efficiency.

Improve muscle efficiency: Massage can release toxins while also simultaneously engaging soft tissue receptors like the muscles spindles and Golgi tendon organs to help with releasing tension and restoring balance to a worked tissue. 

Improve performance: Massage can help the recovery and health of tissues by improving and restoring their optimal resting length which helps them to work more efficiently and, in turn, will ultimately improve training and performance. 

Decrease stress: Massage is great for promoting relaxation and reducing bodily stress. Reducing stress in the body can help promote mental clarity and decreased anxiety for not only daily tasks but, more importantly, for race preparation. 

Best Types of Massages for Runners

1. Specific to Performance

Sports Massage: Done by a professional, a sports massage is specific to training cycles and schedules including pre-and post-race events. Sports massages target specific muscles used most frequently in running such as in the hips and legs. The mechanism of this type of massage is intense and includes deep pressure, sweeping strokes, in combination with trigger point releases. The purpose of a sports massage is to help prevent or treat an injury, reduce tension, and release toxins in conjunction with high mileage to promote faster recovery while in training.

2. Specific to Training

Deep Tissue Massage: Also done by a professional, a deep tissue massage is a generalized full body massage that can be done during as well as outside of training. As with a sports massage, deep tissue massage also uses firm strokes in combination with trigger point releases to reduce tension and stiffness while also improving circulation and flexibility. It is recommended for a runner to receive at least monthly deep tissue massages during and outside of training cycles to ward off potential injuries. 

Because both of these types of massages (sport and deep) use intense pressure, it is advised to work with your therapist for an appropriate schedule. The intense pressure of these massages work to release adhesions, but it can sometimes create irritation and delayed soreness which can arise following these types of massages. Avoiding deep and sports massages 48-72 hours before or after race day is advised. 

3. Specific for Injury

Effleurage: Done by a professional, effleurage uses softer pressure with almost full circumference strokes that go towards the heart. This massage is good for runners following a lower leg injury or who suffer from compartment syndrome or poor circulation. This type of massage pushes toxins and inflammation away from distal portions of the body like the feet. 

Active Release Therapy (ART): A runner who is in the process of recovering from an injury will benefit most from this type of specific massages. An ART therapist uses a technique of stretching and deep trigger point releases to help breakdown muscular adhesions and scar tissue that form following an injury as with the hamstring, hip flexor, or calves. 

Instrument Assisted Soft Tissue Mobilization (IASTM): This is a term used by professionals who use instruments to help with a massage technique known as Graston Technique or scrapping. This not only saves the therapist's hands, but provides deep pressure, thanks to the engineering of the tool, to provide improved blood flow, reduced inflammation, and pain relief to the muscular and fascial system.

Cross Friction Massage: Additionally, a massage therapist can teach cross friction massage to the runner for self-treatment at home which includes a localized deep pressure for short bursts of time. This type of massage is best on areas with poor blood circulation such as ligaments and tendons, like an ankle or knee sprain, or even following a post-surgical procedure to help reduce scarring on the surface of the skin. 

4. Specific for Relaxation

Swedish Massage: Swedish massages are a softer approach that uses gentler pressure. Because of its lightness, it can be done more regularly to promote relaxation and decrease bodily and mental stress.

5. Specific for the Home

Home Massage Tools: Word of mouth flies fast amongst runners and especially on social platforms. You have probably seen all sorts of runners from professional athletes to your running buddy using some sort of home massage tool as part of their recovery plans on Instagram. The good news is that there are plenty of home tools on the market geared towards runners, at affordable prices, to help with self-massage techniques. Some popular ones include: pneumatic compression sleeves, massage guns, Sidekick Tool, foam rollers, and massage balls.

The importance of health and recovery of the body should be as vital to a runner as the effort put into running the miles to achieve a personal best. Recovery needs to be a part of any runner’s program both while in training or out of training. The benefits of massage like reducing pain, stress, and risk of injury while also improving circulation and flexibility, and performance should speak loudly to runners of all levels. Massages should not be considered only a luxury but as an essential part for optimal performance.