May 22, 2014 By Shelley Harper

The Benefits of Massage Therapy for Athletes



Massage therapy is the manipulation of the body’s soft tissue and has many benefits for athletes and non-athletes alike. When used correctly, this mechanical pressure can help improve performance, accelerate recovery, and increase overall well-being. In this post, I will explore the benefits that massage can yield and quickly outline different types of therapy.

Benefits of massage:

  1. Improves Circulation:
    Despite skepticism, a study published last month confirms the circulation benefits of massage. This study, conducted at the University of Chicago, found increased blow flow after massage. This improved circulation can help to reduce soreness and improve recovery from exercise-induced injuries.
  2. Improves Perceived Soreness:
    Corrie Mancinella found multiple benefits of massage when testing collegiate female athletes. In this study, the group of athletes found reduced perceived soreness after their massage therapy. With this mental advantage, the athletes recorded improved marks on both their vertical jump and their shuffle run.
  3. Promotes Relaxation:
    This study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, explored the biochemistry benefits of massage. Results showed a 31% decrease in cortisol (a stress hormone) levels and a 28% and 31% increase in dopamine and serotonin levels, respectively. These results confirm massage’s powerful stress-alleviating effects, which is essential for immune function, overall well-being and, of course, performance.


Types of Massage--What’s the difference?

  • Swedish massage:
    Swedish massage is the most popular form of massage and is generally associated with relaxation. Swedish massage emphasizes long rhythmic strokes to promote blood flow and release muscle tension.
  • Deep Tissue massage:
    Deep tissue massage targets superficial and deep layers of muscles and fascia. This technique generally focuses on specific areas of the body, for instance, tight quads in runners.
  • Trigger Point massage:
    This type of massage focuses on a tight area within a muscle. This technique applies cycles of isolated pressure to the problem area to alleviate the pain and loosen up the muscle.
  • Sports massage:
    A sports massage generally combines different stroke techniques all aimed at improving athletic performance. The sports massage therapist should have a wide knowledge of sport and how muscle imbalances or abnormalities can affect performance and increase risk of injury.

Final thoughts

While massage therapy for athletes can be a very powerful tool, it is important to remember that it should be used to aid practice and recovery, not to substitute it. If it’s in your budget, massage can provide many benefits to an athlete, including: promoting relaxation, improving blood circulation and increasing overall performance. Lastly, don’t forget to drink lots of water after a massage to help flush out the toxins that were released from the muscles during your session. A great tip to ensure that you stay hydrated is to bring a water bottle with you to your appointment and finish it by the time you return home after your massage.


To read more about the physiology of muscles, check out this post!



  2. Mancinelli, Corrie et al. The Affects of Massage on Delayed Onest Muscle Soreness and Physical Performance in Female Collegiate Athletes. Physical Therapy in Sport: 7(2006) 5–13
  3. Field, Tiffany et al. Cortisol decreases and Serotonin and Dopamine Increase following Massage Therapy. Intern. J. Neuroscience, 115:1397–1413, 2005





About the Author

Shelley Harper

Shelley graduated from UC Berkeley in 2012 majoring in Integrative Biology and is currently applying to nursing school. She competed on the women’s swim team at Cal and contributed to three NCAA Championship team titles in her four years. Shelley’s interest in exercise physiology was sparked after discovering connections between the materials learned in her anatomy lab and her athletic endeavors. It is her goal to share this knowledge and inspire other athletes to make these connections to help them reach their personal goals. After finishing her swimming career in 2012, Shelley is now a triathlete utilizing her background in exercise physiology to aid this athletic transition.

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