What Is a Sports Massage For?

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

Sports massage therapy may offer benefits to athletes, from elite-level performers to people who enjoy recreational exercise. A sports massage therapist can assist with training, rehabilitation, and pre- or post-performance goals.

Sports massage techniques vary depending on the purpose, but they can improve overall range of motion and flexibility. They also may be used to decrease muscle pain after workouts, although research studies continue in order to demonstrate some of the proven benefits.

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?

Sports massage is the focused and systematic manipulation of the muscles used in a specific sport.

Runner Paavo Nurmi, known as the "Flying Finn," is said to be one of the earliest users of sports massage while winning five gold medals at the 1924 Olympics in Paris. Jack Meagher was a pioneer of sports massage in the United States, working with National Football League players and Olympic equestrians.

As sports massage evolved, a scientific basis has been sought for the many different movements and techniques. Some are used in other physical therapy settings, and to treat conditions outside of sports such as carpal tunnel syndrome.

Examples of these techniques include:

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

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

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

Sports massage benefits have been reported on the basis of experience and observation. Some have psychological (mind-body) benefits, while others focus on the physiological (body).

Some of the reported benefits of sports massage include:

  • Increased joint range of motion (ROM)
  • Increased flexibility
  • Increased sense of well-being
  • Decreased muscle tension
  • Decreased neurological excitability (nerves more relaxed)
  • Decreased muscle spasms
  • 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

Side Effects

Sports massage side effects include tenderness or stiffness for one to two days after the sports massage. A skin reaction due to the massage oils is also possible. But for the most part, sports massage is safe.

How Painful Is a Sports Massage?

You may feel some discomfort with a sports massage that lasts for a day or two. A sports massage may feel good as a "good kind of hurt." However, it is not meant to cause significant pain. If you feel pain during a massage, tell your therapist right away.

What the Research Says

Sports massage may help people to feel less fatigued and to recover from muscle use faster, according to some research studies. Additional benefits may include:

  • Decreased anxiety
  • Improved mood
  • Better sleep
  • Enhanced feelings of well-being

However, sports massage may have its limits. 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 body effects and also on the mind/body interaction after sports massage.

Finding a Sports Massage Therapist

Look for a credentialed massage therapist to provide you with sports massage. You can look for therapists in your area via 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.

Choosing a Sports Massage Therapist

The AMTA recommends asking the following questions:

  • What are your certifications, and are you a member of the American Massage Therapy Association?
  • 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?

A Word From Verywell

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, different types of sports massage can focus on the muscles most relevant to a particular sport. Examples of this include effleurage (stroking), petrissage (kneading), tapotement (rhythmic striking), vibration, stretching, compression, trigger points, and more.

  • Are massages good for you?

    Whether a massage is "good" for you will depend on your personal experience but there are limited risks, such as a possible allergy to massage oils. For many people, a general massage can improve their overall and physical well-being. A sports massage can help an athlete to improve performance.

  • 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.

11 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.
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Additional Reading