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Sports Massage

Massage is recorded as one of the earliest forms of physical therapy and it is known that it was used by very different cultures over 3000 years ago. It is only in the much more recent past since travel and communications have enabled different civilisations to meet that so many forms of massage have been developed.

Aims of massage

In all types of massage, the therapist has specific aims in mind, and in sport we focus on the individual needs of the athlete. With the ever growing number of people taking part in sport, combined with the increasing competitiveness and intensity of physical exercise, the demand for sports massage is also increasing and becoming more and more recognised as a skill which may aid recovery and enhance performance.

Sports massage does have some aims in common with other forms of massage and it is especially important to have a thorough understanding of anatomy and physiology, in particular the muscular and skeletal systems. By understanding these systems and the effects of exercise, we may also appreciate how massage may benefit the sports person and becomes an integral part of the athlete's training program.

Athletes who are looking to improve performance and increase their competitive edge do so by adopting a training schedule to enhance their skill, strength, stamina, suppleness and speed. The degree to which they develop and utilise these qualities will depend on other factors such as the level of competition, the sport played, and possibly their position in a team. However, no matter which sport, the aim is nearly always to increase the level of training and thereby subject the body to gradual and controlled overuse.

It is this overuse that may often create problems and imbalances in the soft tissues. If these are ignored and allowed to become chronic, they will not only hinder the athlete's rate of improvement, but also in many cases their performance may well suffer and ultimately the athlete may be susceptible to developing more conditions that are serious. Certainly if they are unable to perform at their best, they may be more at risk from other more traumatic forms of injury. For example, a player involved in a contact sport who is "carrying" an injury may not have their usual level of agility. The result might be that they might suffer an extrinsic injury because of not being fully prepared for the contact suffered from an unexpected tackle.

Benefits of Sports Massage

Massage, applied skillfully, is the most effective therapy for releasing muscle tension and restoring balance to the musculo-skeletal system. Received regularly this may help athletes prevent injuries, which might otherwise be caused by overuse. A constant build up of tension in the muscles from regular activity may lead to stresses on joints, ligaments, tendons, as well as the muscles themselves.

These muscle imbalances may develop and often go undiagnosed until they are serious enough to cause the athlete discomfort or impede performance. The skilled massage therapist will be able to detect variations in the soft tissues and by using the correct techniques, help the sports person maintain a much healthier physical state.

It may therefore be reasonably claimed that one of the greatest benefits of sports massage is in helping prevent injury.

Contraindications for Sports Massage

There are times when sports massage could be detrimental rather than beneficial to you. The contra indications to massage are:

  • A body temperature over 100°F, or feeling unwell
  • Acute Traumas - Open wounds, recent bruising, muscle tears, sprained ligaments, contusions, chilblains, burns
  • Tumours - Where there is swelling, which is inconsistent with recent bruising
  • Diseased blood vessels - Varicose veins, phlebitis, thrombosis
  • Cancer
  • Melanoma
  • Haemophilia
  • Infectious skin disease - Bacterial infection, Lymphangitis, Fungal infection, Viral infections, Herpes
  • Where you react adversely to massage treatment
  • Where your symptoms appear to make advice from a doctor advisable
  • Diabetes - not strictly a contraindication but massage has the same effect as exercise on your blood sugar levels so you need to have appropriate medication available

For more details on contraindications see Cash 1996[1].

Massage Techniques

The three main categories of massage that are predominantly used in sport are effleurage, petrissage and frictions. Almost all massage techniques are carried out with the main pressure being directed towards the heart. This helps increase venous and lymphatic flow and ensures that no pressure of blood is being pushed against closed valves causes any damage to blood vessels. The only exception to this is where short strokes are aimed at stretching muscle fibres. Because the strokes are limited, there is no risk of pressure being built up.


Effleurage consists of a variety of stroking movements, usually carried out with the whole palm of the hand and fingers, which may be used with varying pressure according to the purpose and stage reached during the massage. Effleurage is always used at the start of massage.

The basic movements comprise stroking with firm pressure using a wide surface area of the palm of the hand and fingers. On the return, the therapists' hands maintain, light contact and avoid the path taken on the upward stroke. As with all massage, the hands must be relaxed and moulded round the natural contours of the recipient's body. Effleurage is always used to commence any massage session and it has a wide range of purposes that you need to focus on:

  • Introducing touch to the client
  • Putting the client at ease
  • Warming the tissues
  • Increasing blood flow
  • Stimulating peripheral nerves
  • Muscle relaxation
  • Palpating tissues

Effleurage should be carried out in a rhythmical and relaxed manner starting with light touch at the start of a session and building up to deeper pressure for increased circulation and stretching of tissues later in the massage. It should not be rushed as it is during this phase you need to begin to focus on any abnormalities in the tissues that may require further attention later in the massage. If the movements are performed too quickly, this will not help the client relax and if a "tender" area is missed, it will almost certainly be more painful when discovered using deeper techniques later! Effleurage is also used to complete the massage finishing with light stroking to relax the patient, particularly if movements that are more painful have been used beforehand.


Petrissage or kneading is used on deeper tissues for mobilising fluids, stretching muscle fibres, and inducing relaxation. Some of these techniques are specifically aimed at only deeper tissue and are therefore both ineffective and difficult to perform on narrow parts of the limbs. You must therefore pay particular attention, as with all massage techniques, as to what your purpose is when kneading petrissage is a powerful technique that is particularly effective in mobilising fluids in very deep muscles and applying a good stretch to the fibres involved.


Frictions may be used for exploratory purposes, or for deeper and sometimes more painful movements aimed at breaking down lesions, separating muscle fibres, and even breaking down recent scar tissue. When performing frictions for exploratory purposes we tend to use the sensory pad of the thumb to "grasp" the skin and to move this over the underlying surface to feel for any abnormalities (trigger points) to the tissue concerned. This allows us to palpate, particularly around joints and feel for smaller abnormalities in the tissues. When performing frictions for the purpose of separating muscle fibres, breaking down lesions and scar tissues, firstly the client must be warned that these procedures may indeed be painful or at the very least uncomfortable. They only need to be carried out for a very short while. Using vigorous frictions for any longer than this may have a particularly detrimental effect by irritating and even causing inflammation.


  1. CASH, M. (1996) Sports & Remedial Massage Therapy. Ebury Press London. p. 19-25

Related References

The following references provide additional information on this topic:

  • MORASKA, A. (2005) Sports massage: a comprehensive review. J Sports Med Phys Fitness45 (3), p. 370-380
  • BEST, T. M. et al. (2008) Effectiveness of sports massage for recovery of skeletal muscle from strenuous exercise. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine18 (5), p. 446-460
  • BOONE, T. et al. (1991) A physiological evaluation of the sports massage. Athletic Training26, p. 51-4.

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work then the reference for this page is:

  • MACKENZIE, B. (2000) Sports Massage [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

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