The Myths and Realities of Sports Massage

One size doesn’t fit all

Jim Menz, MS, LMT, CSCS, is currently an adjunct professor in the health and exercise science department at Rowan University in Glassboro, NJ. He also teaches anatomy and physiology at Salem Community College in Carneys Point, NJ, and has worked as an instructor for EliteCME continuing education courses for the past five years.

Every so often, however, Menz has a student come to one of his classes with an impossible request. He explains.

“I’ll have someone come to my class who’s working at one of those boutique-type places,” said Menz, “and they’ll say ‘our manager wants to add sports massage to the menu. They want me to learn the technique.’”

But sports massage isn’t a specific technique or modality. “If you wanted to add hot stone massage to your menu… get your crockpot, get your stone, heat them up, and by definition if you are applying heated stones to a body, that is hot stone massage. You can do various things with them. That’s very different from a sports massage.”

The only thing that defines a sports massage is that the individual receiving the massage plays sports—of which there are many. It’s not a one-size-fits-all situation where each competitive athlete receives identical treatment. “I had a guy in his 20s come to one of my classes, and he wanted to walk about ready to utilize his one finished, distinct product (as a sports massage),” Menz recalled. “In his mind someone would come in, ask for a sports massage and he’d know exactly what to do. That isn’t how it works.”

Different sports place different demands on the body. Someone who gets on a bike and pedals through different terrains for upwards of 50 miles in a way will present with completely different demands than the competitive ice hockey player. For example, two of the most recent clients Menz has treated were a competitive distance runner and a competitive powerlifter. You can’t get much further apart in terms of demands on the body for two different groups of athletes.

Menz has a background in strength and conditioning, and has an understanding of the toll training can take on the body. He starts each class with the principles of exercise. An athlete chooses their goals, and begins working towards those goals in a specific manner. “A guy who wants to squat 750 pounds is going to train very differently than a guy who wants to ride a bike 100 miles,” he summarized, “and that takes a different toll on the body.”

In working with the powerlifter, Menz was prepared to encounter extremely thick musculature throughout the body. “There’s no room for any weak link—top to bottom, upper or lower body,” he explained. “The pounding that your shoulder, back, and hips take is pretty extraordinary.”

Overtraining can be a fairly general problem in the powerlifting community, but the peer groupings are strong enough that imbalances are usually addressed before they become too big a problem. “If a guy is benching 500 pounds and squatting 550 pounds… these guys know that in general, the legs should be about 1.5 times stronger, and that’s something they address,” said Menz. “But I do see some imbalances, especially with guys who are kind of ‘new to the game.’”

Not surprisingly, low-back strains are among the most common complaints. “Proper technique is so important, especially in the squat,” Menz said.

Switching gears to distance runners, a population typically thought of as ‘lean and lanky,’ Menz is confronted with a separate set of challenges. “When a guy says he’s a runner doing 10-15 miles, marathons—they tend to look like a runner. Lanky, not a lot of body fat.”

They have one thing in common with powerlifters, however—that tendency for overtraining. “A few years ago I worked on a guy who was a friend of a friend, put him on the table for about an hour,” Menz recalled. “He’d overdone it a little in training, and his body looked like that road sign you see for a lane shift. His legs were there, then his hips tilted right, then the rest of his body straightened up.”

In such cases, Menz always remembers basic tenets. “Muscles only pull,” he said. “If his left hip is elevated, some muscles are pulling up, and they need to be relaxed. He had a shoulder that was elevated as well, due to some hypertonic or overactive muscles.”

If a person were to go to the gym and lift heavy weights for a half-hour with one arm over a period of time, you would begin to see the imbalance as the muscles in that arms would change drastically while the opposing arm remained the same. That’s what occurs with imbalance-type injuries, only in a more natural manner. “An imbalanced stride, a tendency to protect a minor injury, even a problem with footwear on an uneven road surface—they can all create these imbalances,” explained Menz.

So to summarize, it’s impossible to train someone to provide a simple sports massage with the variety of athletic activities and range of injuries possible. But by learning and practicing some basic tenets of exercise, a trained professional will see similarities in athletic injuries and their causes—even in competitors as divergent as powerlifters and distance runners.

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