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Sports Massage

Massage is recorded as one of the earliest forms of physical therapy, and it is known that very different cultures used it over 3000 years ago. Much more recently, since travel and communications have enabled other civilisations to meet, many forms of massage have been developed.

Aims of massage

In all types of massage, the therapist has specific aims in mind, and in sports, we focus on the athlete's individual needs. With the ever-growing number of people taking part in sports, combined with the increasing competitiveness and intensity of physical exercise, the demand for sports massage increases and becomes increasingly recognised as a skill that may aid recovery and enhance performance.

Sports massage does have some aims in common with other forms of massage. It is vital to thoroughly understand anatomy and physiology, particularly the muscular and skeletal systems. By understanding these systems and the effects of exercise, we may also appreciate how massage may benefit the sportsperson and becomes an integral part of the athlete's training program.

Athletes are looking to improve performance and increase their competitive edge adopt 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 training and thereby subject the body to gradual and controlled overuse.

This overuse may often create problems and imbalances in the soft tissues. Suppose these are ignored and allowed to become chronic. In that case, they will hinder the athlete's rate of improvement, and, in many cases, their performance may suffer. Ultimately, the athlete may be susceptible to developing more severe conditions. Indeed, if they cannot 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 agility level. The result might be that they might suffer extrinsic damage because they are not fully prepared for the contact sustained from an unexpected tackle.

Benefits of Sports Massage

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

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

It may be reasonably claimed that one of the most significant 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. The contraindications to massage are:

  • A body temperature of 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 take advice from a doctor advisable
  • Diabetes - is not strictly a contraindication, but massage has the same effect as an 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 pressure directed towards the heart. It helps increase venous and lymphatic flow and ensures that no blood pressure pushed against closed valves causes any damage to blood vessels. The only exception to this is where short strokes aim to stretch fibres. Because the strokes are limited, there is no risk of pressure being built up.


Effleurage consists of various stroking movements, usually carried out with the whole palm 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 the massage.

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

  • 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 rhythmically and flexibly, starting with a 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. As it is during this phase, you need 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 more profound techniques later! Effleurage is also used to complete the massage, finishing with light stroking to relax the patient, mainly if more painful movements have been used beforehand.


Petrissage or kneading is used on deeper tissues to mobilise fluids, stretch muscle fibres, and induce relaxation. Some of these techniques are specifically aimed at the deeper tissue and are ineffective and difficult to perform on narrow parts of the limbs. Therefore, as with all massage techniques, you must pay particular attention to your purpose when kneading petrissage is a powerful technique that is particularly effective in mobilising fluids in deep muscles and applying an excellent stretch to the fibres involved.


Frictions may be used for exploratory purposes or deeper and sometimes more painful movements to break down lesions, separate muscle fibres, and even break down new scar tissue. When performing frictions for exploratory purposes, we use the thumb's sensory pad to "grasp" the skin and move this over the underlying surface to feel for any abnormalities (trigger points) in the tissue concerned. It allows us to palpate around joints and feel for more minor tissue abnormalities. Firstly, when performing frictions to separate muscle fibres and break down lesions and scar tissues, these procedures may indeed be painful or, at the very least uncomfortable. They only need to be carried out for a short while. Using vigorous frictions for any longer than this may have a significantly detrimental effect by irritating and even causing inflammation.


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

Related References

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