Proof you can have too much of a good thing: Search for a massage therapist or spa in your area, and the options can be overwhelming. And each of those places likely offers multiple different types of massage, with different lengths and intensities, making it hard for runners to make the best choice. It’s not surprising that many athletes get confused about which type of rubdown will alleviate post-run aches.
“There are literally hundreds of different styles of massages,” says Mary Peyovich, a licensed massage therapist and owner of Integrative Therapeutic Massage in Chicago. “This is a gross oversimplification, but I mentally bucket massage into two primary categories: massage for relaxation and stress relief and massage used to relieve pain or to address specific conditions.”
Both of those categories can be beneficial for runners. If you have a specific pain that needs addressed, it will affect how you run and could lead to injuries elsewhere if you’re trying to muscle through it. Massage is a proven method of reducing inflammation and promoting cell growth, and having a pro work on your muscles is a major player in proper recovery.
Stress can also negatively affect your training by zapping your motivation, interrupting your sleep, or causing you to hold tension in the body that can lead to injury. A recent study published in the journal Scientific Reports found that just ten minutes of massage helped the parasympathetic nervous system fight stress, physiologically and psychologically. (Can’t get an appointment? Self-massage or a foam rolling session can reduce stress too.)
Regardless, you still want to make sure you get the intended outcome out of your massage session. Definitions of styles are not always clear-cut, and the many spas and clinics use catchall terms and buzzwords to describe their services.
“When someone offers a ‘deep tissue’ massage, it’s really a marketing term,” says Beret Kirkeby, owner of Body Mechanics Orthopedic Massage in New York City. “Really, no massage should be just overall deep, it should be varied based on the needs of each individual client.”
So what’s a sore athlete to do? Find the best massage for runners based on the expert criteria below.
5 Massage Types
Swedish Massage Therapy
A mainstay at spas, Swedish style has become a generic way to define a relaxation massage. It is characterized by the use of massage oil and the application of long, flowing strokes along the body using light to medium pressure. Best for runners who are looking for general stress reduction and improved circulation after a tough training week. While Swedish massage does have some therapeutic properties, runners typically don’t find relief from pain.
Sports massage specifically addresses the needs of athletes. Depending on session goals and the training of the massage therapist, sports massage may integrate stretching with the combined elements of other massage techniques. Best for runners who want to stay healthy and improve performance. Sports massage typically falls into three categories: Injury rehabilitation to manage chronic and acute injuries; pre- and post-race support; and maintenance to help athletes stay free from injury and enjoy peak performance during the training season.
Trigger Point & Neuromuscular Therapy
“Trigger points are hyper-irritable spots in tight muscle bands that can cause muscular weakness and refer pain and tenderness to other areas of the body,” says Peyovich. “In this technique, a trained massage therapist knows the common trigger point locations and their associated referral patterns and applies static pressure to help them release.” Best for runners who want to eliminate chronic pain issues, increase flexibility and range of motion and restore muscle strength (a.k.a. the three central benefits of trigger-point massage). A complementary technique called Neuromuscular Therapy (NMT) addresses the underlying causes of pain by looking at postural issues, biomechanical problems, and possible nerve compression. NMT is especially effective in addressing acute injuries, such as tight hip flexors or plantar fasciitis.
“The fascia of the body, or the layers of skin and connective tissue, contain all kinds of important sensors and mechanisms. In fascia work, the therapist concentrates on moving and pulling the fascia,” says Kirkeby. This is best for runners who have problem spots. By manipulating the fascia, the tissue becomes more elastic, allowing the athlete to experience less pain and greater range of motion. Though fascia work can be a whole-body treatment, it is typically done in targeted areas, such as the neck or the foot.
Active Release Technique (ART)
During an ART session, a specially licensed therapist feels for adhesions within the soft tissue. These lumps or tension areas are then broken up using direct pressure and movement. As opposed to most massages, where the therapist does all of the work, ART requires the therapist and client to work in tandem. Best for runners who are injured—or have been. ART is particularly effective for chronic injuries related to overuse, such as hamstring issues and shin splints.