Pre-Event Massage – Help or Hindrance?

Dr. Lowell Greib MSc ND CISSN

After many hours of training, the entry fees paid and the commitment to participate in an event (whether your first or fortieth), the ever looming question of, ‘I wonder if there is something else I can do to prepare for my race?’, jumps into our heads.  This often leads to a phone call to you favourite manual therapist.  A quick treatment can only be a good thing, right?  Well, not really..

Over the years, it is often that we receive pre-race questions regarding massage and therapy  with the presumption that soft tissue work can lead to improved preparation and performance.  Through conversations with leading doctors practicing manual therapy, it is becoming less common to use soft tissue manipulation (i.e. massage techniques) immediately prior to competition. This may seem counter-intuitive, as one would think that massage or muscle release techniques would be good to loosen the muscle which, in turn, would be better for performance.

The empirical evidence from colleagues is valuable, but is there evidence that these techniques may have adverse performance effects? There are two particular pieces of research that may be indicative of why soft tissue work can be counter productive immediately before competition (i.e. in the day or two before an event). 

The first has a relationship with nervous system activation. 1  There is data to suggest that a component of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) can be up-regulated after massage therapy.  That has to be a good thing, right? Not exactly. The ANS, in fact, is comprised of two systems, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic.  The sympathetic system is responsible for our ability to run away from bears and mountain lions. It is the ‘fight or flight’ component of our nervous system that we need for survival. It pushes blood to muscle and primes the nervous system to move your skeleton efficiently. It mobilizes sugar to your blood stream so it can be used for fast energy during activity.  The parasympathetic system, however, does the opposite.  It lets us ‘rest and digest’. It facilitates digestion, relaxation and helps us store sugar in the form of glycogen.  The component of the ANS that is activated by massage therapy is, not surprisingly, the parasympathetic nervous system.  This is likely why many feel like a bowl of jello after the seeing their RMT. A relaxed state is facilitated. When the two components of the nervous system are competing for dominance, it would make sense that before an event, an athlete would want their sympathetic nervous system to have dominance – since the facets of that system will let us perform our activity more efficiently.

The second piece of research2 that is relevant to performance is the effects of soft tissue work on muscle metabolism. As many are aware, one of the metabolic byproducts of exercise is a compound called lactate.  When this accumulates in muscle tissue, there is a decrease in performance over time. Data published almost two decades ago, indicated that after shorter bouts of exercise, the group treated with massage had more lactate accumulation in their muscle. It would make sense that with longer duration exercise (like participating in a running event) lactate accumulation would continue to increase and at some point be performance limiting.

With the investment of time, energy, effort and money, thoroughly consider the effects that soft tissue work may have on performance outcomes at your next sporting event.  Due to both nervous system and metabolic effects, muscle care 24-48 hours in advance of an event is discouraged.  This said, a skilled therapist will offer treatment to their athletes using other performance techniques that can positively influence their success.

1. Diego, M. & Field, T. Int J Neuroscience 2009;119:630-638.

2. Hemmings et al. Br J Sports Med 2000;34(2):109-115.

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