Should you get a massage before sprinting or any sport that requires bursts of speed? Probably not. A study that was published recently in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice found that massage therapy alone is no better than dynamic warm-ups or a sham ultrasound treatment to improve acceleration in sprinting. (1)
For the 12-week study, a team of of researchers, led by Dr. Ryan Moran from the University of Alabama, recruited 25 NCAA Division II athletes that included freshmen and upperclassmen with nearly a one-to-one male and female ratio. There were four interventions that were randomly assigned to each athlete: 1) massage only; 2) dynamic warm-up only; 3) massage with warm-up; 4) sham ultrasound. Each group of athletes are rotated in different intervention group in the next session after the first tests were completed.
“The interventions were held during the ‘practice’ time schedule, so if [some] athletes was not able to be there at the time due to classes or other reasons, they were not included in the study, especially as the time of day or pre-practice activity may have an adverse effect on the results,” Dr. Moran explained the process to Massage & Fitness Magazine in an online interview. “It was the easiest way to get data collection completed, while also having those days that all of the sprinters would be at practice.”
The massage session lasted about 10 to 15 minutes, which consisted of a typical Swedish massage (e.g. effleurage, petrissage, tapotement). These were performed by a licensed athletic trainer, who were all trained and educated in sports massage, followed a massage protoccol from the Pre-Event Lower Extremity Body Sequence, with targeted the glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, gastrocnemius, Achilles tendon, the popliteal aspect of the knee, and the ventral and dorsal surfaces of the feet.
The dynamic warm-up included various active stretches of the quadriceps and hamstrings with a strap, leg swings, alternating scissor kicks and splits, skipping with butt kicks, and various walking exercises that involved different positions of the feet and ankles.
The massage and dynamic warm-up group was just combining both sessions together—no modifications.
The sham ultrasound group involved applying using the probe to the major muscles of the legs—including the shins—for 1.5 minutes on each part, but the machine was not even turned on. After the “treatment,” the athletes were told to do a short jog “to create a sense of physiological and psychological readiness for performance testing and to attempt to limit any injury from occurring from being unprepared for maximal exertion and performance.” (1)
After the treatment, each athlete performed three 60-meter sprints in an indoor track, and their times were recorded at the 20-meter, 30-meter, and 60-meter marks. Out of the original 25 athletes, only 9 men and 7 women completed study. When the researchers averaged everyone’s sprint times and compared them with the intervention groups, there were hardly any difference to show which is better or worse. This study echoes previous studies, including a Turkish study that also found no benefits of massage prior to vertical jumps, speed, and reaction time. (2)
“In conclusion, it appears that the use of a pre-competition massage as a warm-up modality, whether alone or combined with a dynamic warm-up, has no benefit to enhancing acceleration and sprint performance in collegiate track and field athletes. Pre-competition massage may not be indicative or provide additive benefit as a pre-event modality, over a traditional dynamic warm-up. Utilization of a pre-competition massage remains controversial and may be considered time consuming to the clinician and athlete, while other evidence based modalities or techniques could be applied.”
If there are no significant benefits of massage therapy for sprinting and similar power activities, are there other reasons why some athletes seek massage before competition? Some researchers hypothesize that there could be psychological benefits that have yet to be explored thoroughly. “If the athlete perceives that they are more prepared for activity, there is potential that they may outperform prior athletic performance, whether or not they have a physiological advantage or difference,” Dr. Moran elaborated. “One thing that we did not do, and would have been an excellent addition to the study, is to include a psychological or perceived readiness metric/survey, to better understand if one specific measure felt better or mentally prepared them for their performance that day.
“It really is hard to say if the affective touch did or did not influence results. This is where the patient reported survey would have been beneficial,” Dr. Moran added. “The massage was performed as a ‘sport massage’ which was meant to be more vigorous, aimed at increasing blood flow/hyperemia to each area of the body massaged, and potentially improving mood state. One problem is the level of arousal in the massage and sport. In sport performance and sport psychology, arousal can be a positive and negative trait.
“Over-arousal or under-arousal can hinder performance, where the athlete ideally would want to hover in their area of ‘flow’ where they can excel at their individual desired level of arousal that is most optimal for performance. The sport-massage may have been more relaxing for others, while more invigorating, increasing muscle excitability, which would most likely affect performance in the study. We tried to keep the massage interventions short and sweet to avoid that ‘zombie mode’ post-massage.
“Also, as the individual/athletic trainer administering the massage, the environment was intentionally set up to avoid that relaxing environment that one may encounter in a private massage room, with the rainforest music and soothing aura. The massage was conducted in a space that was private, due to [the comfort level] of the participant, but it was in the arena where others were warming up or practicing, with standard noise. This was to best simulate an on-field sport massage, prior to an athletic competition that you may see at a national invite, dual meet, etc. Again, this is where some form of a patient reported survey or questionnaire would have allowed for better interpretation of the data.
What should therapists consider when they read your study? “I think the biggest take-away is for therapists, coaches, trainers, athletic trainers, and other members of the sports-medicine team to be open to a multitude of treatment methods” Moran replied. “While massage may not increase performance in our study, if an individual perceives that they performed better because of it, then do it.
“Also , for clinicians such as athletic trainers and physiotherapists that may not have the ability to be one-on-one with an athlete prior to competition, this may allow the clinical decision making to not perform the massage and allow the athlete to use that additional time to prepare per their usual dynamic warm-up. Again, this may not be true depending on the psychological benefit or perceived readiness, if the sport massage does indeed help to decrease the arousal to an optimal performance level.”
Moran cautioned about the tiny sample size and the mixed subject group that could affect the results and experiment. “The level of experience may have also influenced outcomes, as some participants were walk-on freshman, while others were upperclassmen. The last thing we wanted to do was have a potential upperclassman get injured from not being adequately warmed up, especially in the ‘placebo ultrasound,’ so you can see why we needed to have them complete a series of sprints to get warm after the ultrasound.
“We also ensured that those athletes were ready, so if a few extra sprints were needed or completed, that was allowed. We did not have someone monitoring the dynamic warm-up for effort. It can be expected that not every athlete gave 100 percent of their effort. There was definitely some potential that those that had something to prove, may have used this as an opportunity to showcase their speed, as compared to others who gave sub-maximal effort to not get injured.
“Also, it is difficult to ensure that the same level of exertion or effort was given on all four test days. There are many factors that are out of the control of the research team, such as diet, hydration, sleep, life factors (failing a test, late for class earlier that day, friendship or relationship concerns) that could have influenced the results. ”
Massage & Fitness Magazine thanks Dr. Moran for his time. He is currently doing research in traumatic brain injury in sports at the University of Alabama.
1. Moran RN, Hauth JM, Rabena R. The effect of massage on acceleration and sprint performance in track & field athletes. Complement Ther Clin Pract. 2018 Feb;30:1-5. doi: 10.1016/j.ctcp.2017.10.010.
2. Arabaci R. Acute Effects of Pre-Event Lower Limb Massage on Explosive and High Speed Motor Capacities and Flexibility. Journal of Sports Science & Medicine. 2008;7(4):549-555.