It is probably not surprising that massage can be beneficial for athletes. Those of us that ask a lot from our physical bodies on a regular basis can benefit from practices, like massage therapy, that support our bodies in staying healthy and performing at their highest level. In this post, we dug a little deeper and came up with five reasons massage is beneficial for athletes that you might not think of or expect.
Massage can alleviate breathing pattern disorders.
Athletes need to breathe well to perform well. In almost any sport you do, breath is important. Being able to take deep, full breaths helps to regulate your heart rate and ensures your muscles are getting regular surges of fresh oxygen. Some people, athletes included, experience what is known as breathing pattern disorders, shallow and rapid breath patterns that only utilize the muscles in the upper body, rather than the diaphragm and intercostal muscles involved in normal breathing.
Massage can actually help athletes breathe deeper and alleviate breathing pattern disorders. Massage helps lengthen and relax the muscles, including the smooth muscles of the diaphragm area, the intercostal muscles and the abdominal connective tissue. Releasing and lengthening these muscles helps improve blood flow and oxygen delivery throughout the body. One of the side effects of breathing pattern disorders is a rise in the pH level of the blood due to the imbalance of carbon dioxide and oxygen created by limited blood flow, which can cause a tightening of the fascia. In general, massage works through tight and constricted fascia, the sheath of tissue that surrounds muscles, so massage helps to alleviate this side effect of restricted breathing. Massage can also improve mobility in the shoulder girdle, creating more space for respiration to occur.
Massage can improve posture and form.
Having correct form is very important for athletes of all kinds. From runners to rock climbers, posture and form can mean the difference between winning the gold and staying home.
Besides the time it takes to learn correct posture or form, our bodies sometimes get into habits of poor posture and form due to physical stress. When the body is stressed, it will naturally modify its posture to reduce stress in the area that’s hurting and distribute that pain to other areas of the body.
A slightly altered posture can lead to pain and imbalance in the body that can affect an athlete’s performance and make him or her more vulnerable to injury.
Massage therapy can help reduce stress in the body, allowing it to return to its normal shape. Massage softens the muscles, allowing them to relax enough for the bones to move back into their normal structure. Massage can also target specific muscle groups in order to release tightness in the body that might be preventing you from moving in the most optimal way.
Massage can help with chronic pain.
For athletes, chronic pain can manifest itself as repeated stress on one specific area of the body that is never fully allowed to heal. During a massage, research has shown the body produces hormones called endorphins, which inhibit pain receptors, essentially reducing the intensity of the feeling of pain in the body. Endorphins also reduce overall stress in the body, which allows athletes to rest more easily and fully. Ultimately, this rest is what will allow the body to heal, so endorphin production doesn’t just reduce the sensation of pain, it also allows the body to relax and access the natural healing it needs.
Massage can reduce cortisol production.
At the same time that regular massage increases the production of endorphins, it decreases the production of cortisol, a hormone that causes stress in the body. Research has shown repeatedly that massage decreases cortisol production, which has a damaging effect on the physical body as well as the mind, impairing an athlete’s ability to perform at his or her best.
Massage can build new mitochondria.
Last but not least, maybe the most surprising benefit of massage is what happens on the cellular level. Research has shown massage after strenuous activity promotes the growth of new mitochondria in our cells. If you took high school biology or were around a few years ago when the mitochondria meme was going around, you will remember the function of the mitochondria. All together now: they’re the “powerhouse” of the cell. What that means functionally is that mitochondria are what convert the food we eat into energy in the form our body can use. The more mitochondria in a cell, the more that cell can make usable energy. For athletes, the more mitochondria they have, the stronger and better they can perform.