How Sports Massage Therapy Assists Elite Athletes in Quicker Recovery and Enhanced Performance
If you’re anything like me, you’ve spent a good amount of time over the past month watching the Rio Olympics, and marveling over the amazing feats of some of the world’s finest athletes engaged in grueling competition. But something you may have missed, was something that occurred when play would pause, and that caught my attention over and over again. During a time-out or break between rounds, an athlete would walk to the sidelines clutching a shoulder, or nursing a knee, and suddenly out of an army of training professionals would emerge a Massage Therapist. The Massage Therapist would just go at the afflicted area with great intensity, seemingly abandoning any of the empathy that I try to incorporate into my soft-tissue work, and after a few minutes the athlete would return to the field or the court, looking recovered and ready for action.
As a Sports Massage Therapist, I spend a lot of time keeping athletes, aficionados, and weekend warriors healthy and primed for their activity of choice, but my work is usually geared towards preparation pre-event, or geared towards recuperation post-event. Elite athletes have been incorporating Massage Therapy into their training and recovery regimens for years; swimmer Dara Torres had two extra Massage Therapists on standby at the Beijing Olympics in case her regular one wasn’t available when needed. Massage Therapy has been an official component of Olympic athlete maintenance for over 20 years. But this during-event approach was interesting to me, and called in mind the work of Hans Kraus.
Hans Kraus was an Austrian orthopedic surgeon in the mid 20th century, an avid mountain climber and skier, and a pioneer of Sports Medicine. After receiving his medical degree in Vienna, Kraus became very interested in the field of rehabilitative medicine when he started comparing notes with a gym owner who came from a family of Polish circus performers. He described how performers had no time to recover from injuries between daily shows, and so when confronted with a sprain or strain, instead of immobilizing and resting, they subscribed to a daily regimen of wrapping the injury in a towel soaked in alcohol, followed by steam heat and gentle movements.
Based on this inspiration, Dr. Kraus spent a lifetime fine-tuning his method of “immediate mobilization,” which consisted of applying ethyl chloride to numb an afflicted area, followed by steam and gentle stretching and strengthening exercises. This method abandoned the previously traditional immobilization technique used to treat acute injuries. His work was so well regarded, that he was enlisted to secretly treat John F. Kennedy for his back pain during his presidency, with a great deal of success.
Dr. Kraus’ practices were expanded upon by his colleague Bonnie Prudden, who hit upon the idea for Myotherapy after Kraus relieved her neck pain on a mountain hike by “squashing” a lump in the affected area. Prudden found that there is a “golden hour” after an acute soft tissue injury in which to treat the injury before the body has time to react with inflammation and limited range of motion. Instead of the typically prescribed RICE method of Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation, Prudden substituted the MICE method, consisting of Myotherapy (release of trigger points to relax surrounding muscles), Ice if needed, and Corrective Exercise, which is intended to pump debris from the afflicted area and prevent swelling and pain.
While these methods were considered controversial back in the day, Immediate Mobilization and Myotherapy are now regularly practiced in the field of Orthopedic medicine, and clinical trials are producing evidence of their success in dealing with acute soft-tissue injury.
The modern day expectations of consistent and record-setting performance placed on athletes seems to be shifting the role of Sports Massage Therapy in elite settings. In the past, competition treatment was limited to pre-event warm up, and post-event recovery. Now, team Sports Massage Therapists are expected to assess and treat an athlete who is complaining of inhibited performance during a sporting event, right on the sidelines, in a matter of minutes. In a 75-minute appointment in the comfort of my office, I get to take time to warm fascia, gather information on impaired motility and muscle function, and explore and identify trigger spots and referred areas of discomfort before jumping in. My clients and I have the luxury of spending our time addressing many areas, or one area in-depth. These on-site Massage Therapists have only minutes to get the job done.
I recently had the opportunity to put some of these concepts into practice for myself, as a volunteer Massage Therapist at the Grass Roots Ultimate Benefit, an annual Ultimate Frisbee tournament that raises funds for local non-profit organizations. Leaning on the techniques of Kraus and Prudden and my personal mentor Jack Coberly, I went about squashing trigger points, stretching limbs, and sending eager disc players back out into competition. The feedback I received was positive and primarily organized around the theme of, “Thank you, I could get through my whole 2 days of tournament play.”
I re-learned firsthand how effective these therapies are for competitors. And I am happy to report that the tournament raised over $18,000 in donations for There with Care, an organization that provides support services to children and families facing critical illness.
So you don’t have to be an Olympian to benefit from the services provided by your friendly neighborhood Sports Massage Therapist. But just in case you are, I’ll see you in Tokyo.
Power to the Peaceful Body,
Boulder Sports Massage
Your Boulder resource for Sports Massage and Deep Tissue Massage with empathy