What Is a Sports Massage For?

Learn about sports massage benefits and whether it's a good fit for you

Sports massage is focused and systematic, targeting muscles that are used in a specific sport. It uses various techniques to decrease muscle pain and improve recovery, as well as improve overall range of motion and flexibility to support safe and effective movement.

A sports massage therapist can assist with training, rehabilitation, and pre- or post-performance goals. While often sought by elite and amateur athletes, sports massage can also be beneficial for anyone who regularly exercises.

This article explains what sports massage is for and the various styles of massage that may offer benefits. It also offers information about how to find a sports massage therapist near you.

Sports massage therapist working on a patient's leg
nattrass / Getty Images

What Is Sports Massage?

Various movements and techniques are used to try to help an athlete's body achieve maximum performance and physical conditioning, with a decreased chance of injury or pain and a quicker recovery.

A sports massage session is specifically tailored to an individual's needs. Some elements of sports massage are used in other physical therapy settings and to treat conditions outside of sports, such as carpal tunnel syndrome.

Examples of techniques used in sports massage include:

  • Swedish style massage
  • Effleurage (stroking)
  • Petrissage (kneading)
  • Compression
  • Friction
  • Tapotement (rhythmic striking)
  • Vibration
  • Gliding
  • Stretching
  • Percussion
  • Trigger points

Deep Tissue Massage vs. Sports Massage

Deep tissue massage relies on similar sports massage techniques, such as effleurage, but often is used as a firm-pressure massage of the whole body rather than a specific site. However, it may be more focused when used to treat neck or chronic lower back pain, or for pain management during labor and delivery.

Sports Massage Benefits

Many sports massage benefits have been reported on the basis of experience and observation alone. These include:

  • Increased joint range of motion (ROM)
  • Increased flexibility
  • Decreased muscle tension
  • Decreased neurological excitability (nerves more relaxed)
  • Decreased muscle spasms
  • Increased sense of well-being
  • Decreased anxiety and improved mood
  • Better sleep

Purported benefits for which there is limited research evidence include:

  • Increased blood flow
  • Increased elimination of exercise waste products (lactic acid)
  • Decreased chance of injury
  • Decreased recovery time between workouts

Limits of Sports Massage

Some studies have shown a modest benefit in reducing delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Others demonstrate a benefit in reducing lactic acid buildup in muscles when sports massage is used in combination with cold water immersion after exercise.

Additional research has focused on benefits associated with active and passive recovery, with some evidence that passive recovery may be the superior approach.

On balance, study findings on sports massage indicate that while it does not negatively affect performance, its benefits are not quite as clear.

More research is needed on the positive effects of sports massage.

Side Effects of Sports Massage

For the most part, sports massage is safe with very few side effects.

Potential side effects of sports massage include tenderness or stiffness for one to two days after a therapy session.

It's also possible that you could have a skin reaction to the massage oils used.

How Painful Is a Sports Massage?

You may feel some discomfort during or after a sports massage, but it should not cause significant pain. If you feel pain beyond what some call "the good kind of hurt," tell your therapist right away.

Finding a Sports Massage Therapist

It is important that you book your sessions with a credentialed sports massage therapist. These practitioners are specially trained to work with people with various sports injuries and help prevent future injury related to your sport or activity of choice.

You can look for some in your area by checking the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork (NCBTMB)'s Find A Nationally Certified Practitioner database. You also can use the American Massage Therapy Association's (AMTA) Find a Massage Therapist database.

The AMTA recommends asking the following questions:

  • What are your certifications?
  • Are you licensed or registered as a massage therapist in this state? (Almost all states regulate massage therapists, requiring credentials to practice.)
  • Which types of massage are you trained to perform?
  • Can you address my health and fitness concerns?

Sports massage is highly valued by many athletes, even though some of its purported benefits are not supported by research. If your goal is relief from sore and tense muscles after a workout, as well as general relaxation, it may be valuable for you.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is massage therapy?

    Massage therapy is a type of massage with the specific goal to strengthen the mobility and function of muscles and joints. It is part of a physical therapy treatment plan performed by a trained therapist.

  • Are there different types of sports massage?

    Yes. Examples include effleurage (stroking), petrissage (kneading), tapotement (rhythmic striking), vibration, stretching, and compression. Different techniques are used to focus on the muscles most relevant to a particular sport.

  • Are massages good for you?

    For many people, massage can improve overall and physical well-being. However, there are some risks, especially for people with certain conditions.

  • What is a Swedish massage?

    Swedish massage is a technique focused on long, smooth strokes. Deep circular movements, vibration, and tapping are performed with these strokes to knead and compress the muscles.

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Skillgate E, Pico-Espinosa OJ, Côté P, Jensen I, Viklund P, Bottai M, et al. Effectiveness of deep tissue massage therapy, and supervised strengthening and stretching exercises for subacute or persistent disabling neck pain. The Stockholm Neck (STONE) randomized controlled trial. Musculoskelet Sci Pract. 2020 Feb;45:102070. doi:10.1016/j.msksp.2019.102070. 

  2. Smith CA, Levett KM, Collins CT, Dahlen HG, Ee CC, Suganuma M. Massage, reflexology and other manual methods for pain management in labour. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2018 Mar 28;3(3):CD009290. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD009290.pub3

  3. Davis HL, Alabed S, Chico TJA. Effect of sports massage on performance and recovery: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ Open Sport Exerc Med. 2020 May 7;6(1):e000614. doi:10.1136/bmjsem-2019-000614. 

  4. Romadhona NF, Sari GM, Utomo DN. Comparison of sport massage and combination of cold water immersion with sport massage on decrease of blood lactic acid level. 2019 J. Phys.: Conf. Ser. 1146 012012

  5. Fennell CRJ, Hopker JG. The acute physiological and perceptual effects of recovery interval intensity during cycling-based high-intensity interval training. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2021 Feb;121(2):425-434. doi:10.1007/s00421-020-04535-x. 

Additional Reading

By Terence Vanderheiden, DPM
Terence Vanderheiden, DPM, is a podiatrist in Massachusetts with a subspecialty in the area of podiatric sports medicine.