The Multi-Faceted Role of Massage in Training, Part II

By Melissa Hall, LMT

This is the second article in a three part series on massage:

The Importance of Circulation

When you think of blood what comes to your mind? As a sports massage therapist, the following things come to my mind: oxygen transfer, nutrient delivery, and waste removal. Our blood accomplishes amazing things for us. It is truly our life “juice”. Without circulation of blood, our tissues become necrotic – they die. Our arterial system brings us blood that is freshly supplied with oxygen from our lungs. It is pumped by our heart down into the smallest of all vessels, the capillaries. Here is where the magic transfer takes place. Your blood brings your tissues wonderful things: oxygen, glucose, electrolytes. And, in return, accepts all the metabolic waste products and carries them away. Imagine what would happen to your performance and recovery if your circulation was compromised.

How Massage Affects Your Physiology

Let’s start with the fascia. Personally, I think that affecting your fascia is the most important thing that a massage therapist can do. Why? Because there are many things you can do to affect the other tissues in your body, but there are very few things you can do to affect the fascia the way a good myofascial therapist can. When we exert ourselves, we generate a great deal of heat in our muscles. Fascia is especially sensitive to heat. As we are exercising, we distort the fascia through our motions and because of the stresses that it absorbs. When we stop exercising and cool down, these distortions can remain in place. Additionally, neighboring fascial tissues can become adhered to one another. The result: loss of circulation, restriction of relative motion of muscles, restriction of muscle contraction. The myofascia surrounding the muscle can have a tourniquet effect, squeezing the muscle and preventing full circulation to occur. If two adjacent muscles are adhered to one another, their relative motion can be limited or prevented altogether. This forces both of the muscles involved to work harder every time you recruit them. Now, they not only have to perform their normal contractile functions but they have to pull against the tissue they are shackled to.

All of these lead to decreased performance and increased recovery time. Eventually, they can also lead to injury. A myofascial therapist can remove these distortions and restore the fascia to a healthy state. Adhesions between fascial tissues are very difficult to break up without the physical manipulation of massage – stretching will not break these bonds because it cannot isolate and emphasize the relative motion of its captors.

As a side note, athletes living in warmer climates will require treatments more frequently. And athletes, in general, will require more treatments during the hot months of the year or when they are training consistently at higher intensities. Why? Because all of these factors contribute to the overall temperature of the muscle tissue and fascia and have the effect of producing more adhesions.

There are many massage techniques which affect muscle tissue. I recommend a deep tissue technique which will milk any previously trapped metabolic waste products from the muscle once the circulation has been restored via myofascial release. A deep tissue technique will also aid in flushing out stagnant blood and pushing in new blood, fresh with all the necessities to begin revitalizing your muscle tissue. Additionally, it is important that the sarcomeres, contractile units of muscle fiber, are returned to their original length. After a hard effort or a long run, it is common for our muscles to get reprogrammed. We have spent so much time or effort in emphasizing their contraction, that our brain believes that our desire is for them to remain that way.

If you will recall, the force generated by our muscles is determined in part by how much of a contraction or shortening occurs. If your muscle tissue is already shortened, then it has less available distance to travel. Thus, a full contraction of a shortened muscle will produce less force. This directly affects your performance! The mantra is “A tight muscle is a weak muscle”. A deep tissue massage will restore those tissues (sarcomeres) to their original length and allow you to optimize your generated forces. As a matter of fact, this lengthening can often be felt in a massage client’s first post-massage workout. Your legs may feel a bit weak or lack power. This is because some tissues may be slightly lengthened beyond what is normal for your body. So, your muscles are having to work harder to make a full contraction occur. Don’t fret. One easy workout should bring all your tissues back to homeostatic length, and then you can let it fly!

Because of their fibrous nature, tendons and ligaments are directly affected by massage only minimally. Tendons are indirectly affected by the fascial and deep tissue work. The tension on tendons is relieved because of this work. It is important for you to know that constant-over tensioning of tendons can lead to tendonitis or even stress fractures. Cross fiber frictioning is a massage technique commonly employed to directly treat tendons and ligaments. One direct effect of this technique is increased blood flow. Because of their fibrous nature, these tissues have very little blood flow (as compared to muscle tissue). This is one reason why it takes injuries in these areas a long time to heal. Additionally, frictioning can be used to treat tendons which have metabolic waste build up near the attachment site (enthesitis).

Injuries are never fun, but they are an inevitability if you run. Especially, if you run long distances or push your pace. Massage cannot knit muscle tissue back together or reattach tendons to bones. But, after the acute phase of the injury is over (usually 48-72 hours), massage can help increase circulation to the area or reduce swelling which will promote the body’s own healing mechanisms. And should you tear a muscle or tendon, in the late stages of healing or even shortly after it is healed, massage can be used to align the scar tissue in the direction of original tissue so that motion is not limited. Massage cannot directly heal an injury – only your body can do that - but it can decrease your down time.

In our next article, we will talk about how to most effectively time your massages and how to get the most out of each treatment.

One Step Beyond Assistant Coach Melissa Hall – November 2006