Long, hard hours in the saddle can leave your muscles knotted and your body aching. That’s why massages and post-ride rub downs are as integral to a professional cyclist’s routine as their training is.
Massages flush the body from toxins, loosen tight spots, accelerate recovery and help prevent injury. But most of us aren’t professional cyclists and aren’t treated to massages regularly. With a limited budget and busy schedules, when should you get a massage?
We asked a professional soigneur, a physical therapist and a massage therapist to get the answers.
Sport massage 101
Sport massage is specifically designed for athletes and combines various massage techniques to concentrate on the areas that are related to an athlete’s sport of choice. It focuses on areas of the body that are overused and stressed from repetitive movements. Massages help prepare the body for peak performance as well as prevent and treat injury.
Orica-GreenEdge’s soigneur Sandra Ni Hodnae explained that in professional cycling, there are two main phases of massage: Pre-competition and post-competition.
“The pre-competition massage is superficial, energetic and stimulating to increase the blood circulation and oxygenate the muscles, increasing flexibility in the muscle groups associated with that particular sport,”explained Hodnae. “The massage is of short duration (10 minutes) and is used in combination with a warm up to be effective.”
The post-competition or recovery massages is used to stimulate lymphatic drainage and venous return therefore flushing toxins from the system. It’s also used to “stimulate a cascade of hormones and neurotransmitters which have dramatic effects on the homeostasis, pain reduction, stress and anxiety relief, improving sleep patterns and promoting a feeling of well-being of the athlete,” explained Hodnae.
When should I get a massage?
“There are many myths regarding when to get a recovery massage before a big race event. With 15 years of experience in the sport of professional cycling, I can tell you that all riders, when given the opportunity, will take advantage of a ‘rub’ the evening before their events, especially post race during all multi-day event,” said Hodnae.
With that said, massage should really be part of your training routine.
“After any intensive training session — be it intervals, hill training or first long training adapting sessions — a recovery massage in the hours afterwards is recommended to keep the muscles in optimum shape. Don’t wait until your race, your performance depends on keeping your body in tip-top shape,” said Hodnae. “Short recovery periods between sessions need good and effective recovery methods. Massage and stretching should be taken as a priority!”
“Coming in for massage only “when in need” will work, if that is all you can manage, but usually there are other underlying issues than just the acute issue presenting at the moment,” warned Alexandra Burton, a Portland-based massage therapist who’s an elite cyclist herself. “Most likely, one visit will not relieve an acute condition, like a muscle strain, especially when you are going out the next day for training.”
“I always ask people what their training or racing plan is for the next few days after a massage. If you are new to massage, I recommend to come in at least 3 -4 days before a big event,” continued Burton. “If they are training the next day, their legs may feel a little “full” or “heavy”. There is nothing wrong with training through that, you just might not feel the best. When your training load is high or you are racing a lot back to back, the more massage you can get, the better.”
How often should I get a massage?
“Most people get massage work only when there is tightness or tension beyond what stretching, foam rolling and/or working on core strength can take care of,” stated physical therapist Izette Swan. “But massage should be part of your routine. I believe weekly would be ideal for those putting in more than 15-18 hours of training per week. For most folks, however, dealing with the delicate balance of work, training and budgeting, monthly is probably more realistic.”
Burton argued that once a month isn’t enough.
“Coming in regularly is the most effective way to prevent injuries and stay mobile. If we were all made of money and time, I’d tell my clients they should come in every week,” Burton said. “Obviously that is not realistic for the average person so the most effective time frame, for most healthy bodies, is once every three weeks.”
Burton explained that while not optimal, once every three weeks is still effective for preventing injuries and keeping an athlete’s body healthy while also being manageable for people’s busy schedules and budgets.
“Once a month or longer seems to be too long, and it feels like we are starting from zero every time the client comes in as injuries creep up and the body takes a toll,” Burton warned. “The effects of massage are cumulative, so the next massage builds on the first. Bodies get used to the work, you can work deeper with less damage, and the client is quicker to relax. It’s also important to note that one massage will not fix a chronic injury. It has taken a long time to create that injury, it will take a while to undo it.”
At home treatment
“A solid routine of stretching, foam rolling and good core work can be a magical combination that works to keep your tissues healthy and moving,” said Swan.
Before you go crazy on the foam roller, Burton urges athletes to be gentle.
“I am fan of ‘less is more’. People don’t like to foam roll, because it hurts.. A lot of the areas that massage has the most effect on are hard to find and reach with the foam roller – like the inside of the thigh, deep rotators of the pelvis and small muscles in the back of the neck. When using the foam roller at home, just don’t lay on it, try to find a spot and work slowly and move your joints around it, freeing up the muscles and connecting tendons,” said Burton.
Swan, Burton and Hodnae all stressed that even a solid routine of stretching, foam rolling and a strong core cannot replace routine massages.
“Don’t wait until it’s too late,” urged Hodnae. “Prevent adhesions, pain and fatigue and book your massage today!”