Jarrod C. Fritz, Licensed Massage Therapist SC# 3692
By: Jarrod C. Fritz, LMT
Advancing Recovery for the Avid Athlete Whether they choose to partake or not, most people know that regular physical activity is beneficial to their overall health and wellness. On average, 30 minutes of exercise 3-6 days a week is great for lowering blood pressure, decreasing bad cholesterol, and even preventing diabetes. Most people fear the pain and potential injury that comes along with exercise and increased activity. To avoid injury it’s suggested that you recover properly from these workouts with adequate rest and even light stretching. What about those who participate in much more intense activities such as CrossFit style workouts, elite level running, and even such sports as Football? Workouts for these activities are designed to enhance performance, strength, and power. A more intense workout calls for a higher level of recovery including the addition of proper diet, specific supplements, and advanced therapies such as Massage Therapy.
How can it be that something so calming and “pampering” such as massage could help an elite level athlete like a Football player? Many people don’t understand the healing effects that massage has on the body because they usually understand massage as what they see on TV and in movies. Massage is portrayed in most media as the “Spa environment” with candles, incense, oils, and hot rocks. This depiction of massage is not inaccurate, however; it is only one side and one version of the profession. It’s similar to saying that every mechanic is only capable of doing oil changes and nothing more. The extensive field of massage therapy has been around for many years and has developed into many different modalities. Massage therapy branches out into fields such as lymphatic drainage, energy work, spa techniques, as well as sports and therapeutic applications.
What is it that makes therapeutic massage so different from what you normally hear about massage therapy? Therapeutic massage has the more specific intention on fixing the root of the issue not just the symptoms. The “traditional”massage that most people are familiar with mainly focuses on calming the mind and generally relaxing the body as a whole with a light, easy, and flowing touch. Therapeutic massage consists of touch with specific intent and is usually more firm reaching deeper layers of muscle tissue. The treatment is also focused to local areas treating spot specific portions of the body that interferes with natural movement and full range of motion of the joints of the body. The differences in the applications are significant yielding significantly different results as well. Massage therapy in general has multiple benefits that positively affect the body in many great ways. The most important benefits of therapeutic massage that we want to look at for the avid and elite level athlete are that massage assists in the breakdown of scar tissue, aides in the removal of metabolic wastes, increases localized blood flow, and restores proper muscular function.
Let us take a moment to look at how the body responds to the high intensity work and injury that an elite level athlete endures and how it would benefit from therapeutic massage. First, it’s important to understand that almost every time we engage in movement, we are “tearing” muscle fibers. The degree of the “tearing” depends on the resistance and fluidity of the muscles. Resistance is dependent on how flexible the muscle is where as the fluidity requires proper hydration and nutrition. The more the muscle is properly stretched, the more pliable it becomes and the less resistance and tearing will be involved. If the muscle isn’t well hydrated and healthy, then the muscle fibers can’t move as smoothly. A great way to think about this is to take a silk cloth and drag it across a piece of untreated lumber, this isn’t easy due to the coarse surface of the wood and splinters that catches the fabric. Now imagine if that lumber is well sanded or “stretched” as well as polished or “hydrated”; the fabric will move smoothly with little to no resistance. If a muscle isn’t sufficiently pliable then every subsequent movement can be damaging and require additional recovery and healing. Up until this point, we have only addressed proper preparation before activity and you can already see what a role therapeutic massage can play in an elite level athlete’s training. Massage therapy is simply passive stretching of the muscle fibers and in the stretch, massage breaks down scar tissue and adhesions that prevent pliability. Now, let us look at what happens during activity such as a football game, long distance running, and CrossFit training. Even with proper nutrition and stretching, during activity the movement of muscle fibers creates friction which increases heat in the body and requires fuel to sustain movement. The more intense the workout, the more heat produced and more fuel required. As heat increases due to more intense usage of the muscles, the body begins to heal itself and if it can’t, the body will begin to lay down scar tissue to prevent additional damage. Scar tissue can be great at preventing additional injury, but at the same time limits normal range of motion and interferes in pliability. As the body utilizes fuel for activity it produces waste and by product just as a car uses gasoline and produces exhaust fumes. Just like heat, the more intense the workout results in an increase in wastes in the body. The body is capable of eliminating moderate amounts of waste, however, if there is an overwhelming amount of waste build up, it may be difficult to eliminate it all. Wastes can settle back in the muscle fibers if not properly eliminated and this is very similar to pouring salt in a fresh would, very painful! It’s very easy to see how these reactions to activity can limit continued activity as well as impede performance. The last thing that an elite athlete wants is to compromise their performance and not be able to train, so how can these side effects be avoided? That’s where therapeutic massage can make a big difference!
Earlier, I spoke about the most important benefits of therapeutic massage for the avid and elite level athlete being that massage assists in the breakdown of scar tissue, aides in the removal of metabolic wastes, increases localized blood flow, and restores proper muscular function. Now that you are more familiar with what happens to the body prior and during intense workouts, let us see how therapeutic massage can aide in recovery and optimize performance. The most significant aspect of massage to remember is that, as stated earlier, massage is a form or passive stretching and massage in general can help to increase flexibility and pliability which allows us to avoid the unnecessary “tearing” of muscle fibers. Previously, the topic of scar tissue was mentioned and how it is the body’s natural reaction to prevent additional injury. The downfall of scar tissue is that it is laid down without any kind of organization and therefore can interfere with the proper motion of the muscle fibers. With the amount of pressure applied and the intention of therapeutic massage strokes, the therapist is able to break down any built up adhesions of scar tissue in the muscle fibers which allows the scar tissue to become reorganized with the preexisting healthy muscle tissue. Healthy, organized muscle tissue is more pliable and allows for smoother, more coordinated movements. The deeper and more vigorous strokes of therapeutic massage also stimulate an increase in blood flow to the area. Some would believe this to be bad because it would add inflammation to the injured area, but it is quite the opposite. An increase in blood flow to a particular area not only helps to flush the area of wastes like powerful water hose, but it brings healthy nutrient rich blood to expedite healing and recovery. One last thing to be aware of when it comes to massage therapy is the power of touch. A simple gentle touch is calming and helps to release certain hormones such as serotonin, dopamine, and oxytoxin which allow the client to relax their muscles and rejuvenate. When a client is put at ease, they are able to focus and react better; qualities that assist elite level athletes and those training in more intense workouts to optimize their performance. It’s easy to see that with these benefits, therapeutic massage is almost the perfect answer for not only recovery, but also performance enhancement for the avid and elite level athlete!
We all know that exercise is important to keep us healthy and in shape but in some cases, some people believe that more intense exercise will yield healthier benefits and results. With that thought in mind you can see how more intense activities, such as long distance running and CrossFit are becoming more popular. Activities such as these can be closely compared to the training of many elite level athletes who participate in Football, Soccer, and many other major sports. These types of activities require certain preparations including proper nutrition and specific stretching. In addition to the preparation, these activities take quite a toll on the body and call for a more extreme recovery. Supplements, sufficient rest, and flexibility training are typical forms of recovery that work well. Now, if you add in something as unconventional as massage therapy to a recovery regiment you will see more efficient recovery, improved performance, and optimized health. Massage therapy has been around for ages and has been utilized by athletes throughout the years all over the world, so although it may not be the first thing that you think of when someone mentions recovery for intense workouts but it can be the edge needed to get to the next level.