Building a Massage Habit for Athletic Health

Sanya RR at SXSW

At her 2016 SXSW panel, world class runner Sanya Richards-Ross, gold medalist at the 2012 London Olympic Games, discussed her training schedule. One detail had my head spinning:

“During training, I get four to five massages a week.”

YASSSS. It must be good to be queen.

The Power of Regular Massage

Photo of massage table with title, "When was your last runner's tune-up?"
Photo Credit: Mantis Massage

A good massage schedule is as essential for an athlete as oil changes are for autos. Sure, you might be fine without one, but everything runs better, smoother, and longer when regular maintenance occurs.

Let me clarify, though. Richards-Ross and I are not referencing relaxing vacation spa massages, the kind with hot stones, exotic muds, and a fruity beverage. The traditional sports massage utilizes more intense pressure  and focuses on recovery and rehabilitation. As defined in 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.”

According to North American Journal of Sports Physical Therapy (NAJSPT), athletes have been getting massages since 2500 B.C. I drank the Kool-Aid on this runner maintenance back in the early 2000’s, in the days when I chose one or two goal marathons in a year. I’d typically book a pre- and post-marathon session, each within two weeks either side of my event. (As a young mother, budget had a lot to do with how many — or few — I scheduled).

And then came ultras.

In addition to bumping up distance, I’d accumulated miles on my aging body. Regular massage seemed to promote recovery, increase flexibility, and keep me healthy.* And when I’ve been injured, massage was often a prescribed therapy.

Massage as Maintenance

Photo of massage table with title, "When was your last runner's tune-up?"
Photo Credit: Mantis Massage

Now, I can’t imagine training for anything without regularly seeing a massage therapist. It helps that I can walk to Mantis Massage, which specializes in deep-tissue and neuromuscular therapy (I profiled Mantis for The Austinot“Local Businesses Support Mind and Boy on Airport Blvd.”). In fact, I recently saw lead therapist Monica Castillo, who’s been keeping my body whole and functioning in preparation for the Paris Marathon.

I’m pretty typical of Mantis’s clients. “We see clients who are professional athletes — they train religiously for competition or profession. We also see everyday athletes, who work out three to five times a week and are involved in extra-curricular amateur sports leagues,” Castillo said. While they don’t have hard data on demographics, she estimates that 70–80 percent of Mantis’ clients would be considered athletes.

Castillo pointed out that, like me, most athletes arrange massages in advance according to training schedule. “Massage sessions [for most of our athletes] are usually scheduled every one to two weeks during the peak training period and leading up to the event,” she said. “Post event, athletes usually schedule every three to four weeks for maintenance.”

Putting It In Practice

When I go to see Castillo, we first chat about the kind of workouts and training I’ve been doing and where I feel my body needs attention. My problem areas tend to be shoulders and chest, hips, and calves. Though she pays careful attention to the knotty segments I’ve called out, Castillo works from head to toe, back to front. Afterward, she often recommends stretches to continue to remedy those problems areas. I usually leave feeling pretty worked over and about 2 inches taller.

Massage Therapist vs. Physical Therapist?

Photo of massage table with title, "When was your last runner's tune-up?"
Photo Credit: Mantis Massage

Massage as injury treatment is also different from that casual, relaxing vacation spa experience. This massage is usually performed by a physical therapist and designed to facilitate healing and recovery.

Castillo, who is a massage therapist, explained how someone with her training approaches massage differently from someone who has a physical therapy background: “Massage therapists focus on the soft tissue areas, and they tend to have a more holistic approach to their body work. Physical therapists tend to focus on one body part at a time to provide hrehabilitation and strengthening exercises. Usually, the appointments tend to be shorter and more focused.”

She also pointed out how the two are alike:

[Massage therapists and physical therapists] aim to provide the best possible care for the athlete, to reduce swelling and inflammation, and to prevent injuries.”

Massage for Prevention and Correction

Photo of massage table with title, "When was your last runner's tune-up?"
Photo Credit: Mantis Massage

I asked orthopedic physiotherapist Katie Gwyn of Mondo Sports Therapy for her definition of sports massage. “I define sports massage as a deep tissue massage that focuses on flushing out the muscle and addressing areas that have palpable tension,” she replied. “So firm, deep pressure but not enough to result in bruising. Bruising indicates tissue bleeding, and we do not want to create tissue damage.”

Gwyn sees sports massage as a great benefit for everyday athletes in that “soft tissue work helps you recover a little faster between workouts.” Perhaps a bigger bonus to regular hands-on therapy, she said, is that it can also “expose areas that may be breaking down and are becoming vulnerable to injury.”

In a perfect world, Gwyn would like to see her athletes who are training for a specific goal come in for a 30-minute lower-extremity massage once a week.

Putting It In Practice

I often had massage as I recovered from my broken ankle. While I gave feedback on how the area was feeling, massage was based on doctor’s reports and the physical therapist’s evaluation. Usually, a workout with my PT came first and massage — focusing on that foot, ankle, and calf — followed. My PT used massage to lengthen affected muscles and tendons and break up scar tissue. She also showed me how to work those areas on my own (specifically encouraging me to separate the skin around my surgical incision from the tendons underneath). Sometimes, this type of massage was a bit painful.

Do You Bare for Massage?

  • I want my massage therapist to have free and clear access to my body. So I go bare. I have runner friends, however, who opt for some amount of clothing. It’s all about how comfortable you are with nudity. A good massage therapist will drape so that you never feel (or are) fully exposed.
  • For physical therapy massage, I have always had on workout clothes. The key is to wear garments that allow appropriate range of motion and access to massage area. Even with hamstring issues, I’ve never had to undress for PT-related massage.



*More study needs to be done to ascertain exactly how athletes benefit from massage. To read more, take a look at this study published in NAJSPT: “The Role of Massage in Sports Performance and Rehabilitation: Current Evidence and Future Direction” by Jason Brummitt, MSPT, SCS, ATC


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Published by Leah Nyfeler

I'm a writer, editor, runner, and adventurer who is always looking for the next new story, exciting adventure, and good meal/book/movie. My focus is on helping people find their best, healthiest self through sharing what I know and how I've come to learn it. In addition to my blog "Enjoying the Journey: Observations on the Fit Life" at, my articles have appeared in a variety of print and online magazines. You can hear me as part of the 2015 Austin cast of Listen To Your Mother.

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