Serious athletes typically utilize sports massage therapy to recover from injuries and/or to maintain flexibility, strength and their performance edge.

Sports massage therapy, a recognized, valuable addition to other physical therapies and treatments, has become just as much a part of an athlete’s routine as diet and exercise. A sports massage therapist is the last person to touch many professional athletes prior to their competition. Athletes from all over the world, in every sport, have come to comprehend the advantage of a massage therapist with a thorough understanding of anatomy and kinesiology, the muscles used for a given sport and the wisdom to anticipate areas prone to injury.

Michael McGillicuddy, LMT, NCTMB, states in the May 2003 issue of Massage Today, “Sports massage is the specific application of massage techniques, hydrotherapy protocols, range of motion/flexibility protocol and strength-training principles utilized to achieve a specific goal when treating an athlete.” Keys to understanding these principles of sports massage, says McGillicuddy, are the “when, what and why” of sports massage; mainly timing, technique and intent.


Possibilities include:

  • Pre-event massage
  • Post-event massage
  • Maintenance massage
  • Rehabilitation massage


Technique refers to what applications will be used. Different techniques specific to sports massage include, but are not limited to, effleurage, friction, petrissage, vibration, shaking, compression, broadening, direct pressure, cross-fiber friction, range of motion, trigger point, counterstrain, reciprocal inhibition and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) stretching.


The intention behind administering sports massage ranges from:

  • Increasing blood flow
  • Aiding recovery from exhaustion
  • Increasing flexibility
  • Improving strength and posture

Pre-event Massage

Pre-event massage typically occurs at the sports event, just prior to the athlete’s participation. Dr. James Mally, instructor of the Institute’s Sports Massage course, states that pre-event massage should take place prior to, but not replace a warm-up, approximately 20-30 minutes before the event. Pre-event massage focuses on the muscles that will be stressed most during competition. Depending on the sport, pre-event massage often uses friction to help warm the body, compression to increase blood flow to targeted muscles, and range of motion to prepare neural pathways and assist with joint mobility.

Pre-event massage routines and techniques depend upon the event the athlete is preparing to compete in. Examples include:

  • Swimmers and runners require quick reaction time.
  • Boxers need their muscles to remain loose.
  • Gymnasts require flexibility.

Each competitor will require a unique combination of techniques designed to maximize his/her performance. Pre-event massages are typically vigorous with the intention of imparting speed, power and endurance.

Pre-event massage effects include:

  • Dilating blood vessels, which results in improved cellular nutrition to the muscles.
  • Improving circulation to tendons and ligaments.
  • Relaxing muscle antagonists, which results in greater muscle efficiency.
  • Releasing trigger points that could negatively affect athletic performance.
  • Increasing flexibility – best for gymnasts and athletes who require flexibility.
  • Preventing and treating muscle spasms.
  • Preparing the body’s nervous system for strenuous activity.
  • Increasing heart rate, respiratory rate and body temperature.

Post-event Massage

Post-event massage is performed at the event site after competition. This work requires a great degree of skill and knowledge to assist the athlete in recovery. Reducing muscle soreness and/or cramping while reestablishing range of motion and blood flow can facilitate a faster return to training after an event. Post-event massage is given for 10-15 minutes following a cool-down period of about 15-20 minutes. Cuts, bruises, blisters, mild strains, sprains or muscle cramps must be treated prior to massage. If muscle cramps are due to dehydration, medical attention should be sought immediately.

Post-event massage might consist of compressive effleurage for calming the nervous system and pushing fluid, petrissage for easing muscle tension, compression for spreading muscle fibers and restoring blood flow, broadening strokes to lengthen tight muscles, and compressive effleurage as a finishing stroke to soothe the athlete. Stretching can relieve muscle tension and restore range of motion while reciprocal inhibition can relieve muscle cramps not due to dehydration. Athletes usually look forward to a post-event massage because the benefits are experienced immediately.

Maintenance Massage

Sports maintenance massage is performed when an athlete is not competing in an event. An effective maintenance program focuses on an athlete’s strength, flexibility, coordination, biomechanics, posture, stress patterns, scar tissue and existing injuries. It is important to determine if an injury is acute or chronic, as this will dictate the appropriate technique to use and prevent exacerbation of the injury.

A sports massage maintenance program designed to meet a specific athlete’s needs can add a significant edge to his/her performance. McGillicuddy advises a sports massage therapist to design a maintenance program based on information gathered from discussing the athlete’s existing goals and watching the athlete’s workouts or competitions. In addition, recording current or previous injuries, evaluating prior treatments and setting specific performance goals with the athlete contributes to designing an ideal maintenance program.

Rehabilitation Massage

Even with preventive maintenance, athletes’ muscles cramp, tear, bruise and ache. While rehabilitative sports massage should only be performed in conjunction with proper medical care, it can significantly speed healing and reduce discomfort.

Because rehabilitative sports massage techniques can temporarily increase pain and inflammation, massage on acute injuries is traditionally followed by cryotherapy. When assisting the proper formation of scar tissue, McGillicuddy suggests using effleurage, compression and cross-fiber friction, followed by ice treatment and movement. Additional techniques employed for rehabilitation include lymphatic and trigger point massage. In the acute stage of injury, lymphatic drainage massage can decrease swelling and accelerate the healing process. Trigger point or neuromuscular therapy can reduce spasms and pain in both the injured muscles, and those compensating for the injury.

An accomplished sports massage therapist applies the correct sports massage technique in every situation. Dr. Mally suggests beginning with the gentlest methods, then progressing toward those that are more active. Trial and error typically helps delineate what is most beneficial for the athlete. Learning about common sports injuries, mastering the principles of each technique and fully comprehending musculoskeletal anatomy and kinesiology all play a part in becoming a successful sports massage practitioner.