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A New Look At Massage Therapy for Athletes

Massage therapists are a fixture at endurance sports events such as the 24 hour Moab Mountain Bike Race.
Massage therapists are a fixture at endurance sports events such as the 24 hour Moab Mountain Bike Race.

In the past decade or so, massage therapy has become an ubiquitous part of athletic training. As the practice has gained legitimacy as more and more athletes have turned to it to help recovery.

The treatment has become such a part of endurance exercise that a major running event, like the P.F. Chang's Rock n Roll Arizona races that saw more than 25,000 participants take to the streets of Phoenix last month, can cause a big boom in business for local massage therapists.

The most popular theory concerning the effectiveness of massage is linked to the idea that lactic acid and other waste products as the culprit behind muscle soreness. Exercise prompts a build up of these, the logic goes, and massage ameliorates their removal.

The problem is the science backing it up simply hasn't been there.

That may have changed with the recent findings of a study published in the most recent issue of Science Translational Medicine. It found nothing to support the "waste product" theory but, instead, it seems that massages somehow activating genes that promote recovery at the cellular-level.

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The problem is that, like ice baths, most athletes use massage therapy because they say it makes them feel better. Exactly why it does and if it is actually helping recovery have been unclear.

There seems to be some evidence massage therapy at least provides a psychological and motivational boost to athletes but beyond that the data is murky. Prior studies have found pre-workout massages provide no measurable performance improvement while post-race massages did, in fact, seem to help in recovery. Other studies questioned the use of the therapy in treating injuries such as tendonitis.

Mark Tarnopolsky, a neurometabolic researcher at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, and his team set aside the question of if massage worked and set about examining how it might work. Their study examined what was going on with the muscles at the cellular level.

The study examined 11 young men who were put through strenuous upright cycling sessions. Ten minutes after finishing they were given massages on one of their legs. Three tissue samples were taken from the volunteers quadriceps muscles in both legs; one before the workout, one after the massage and a final one three hours after. The researchers then compared the genetic profiles of the samples.

What they didn't find was any evidence of differences in lactic acid or waste products between the massaged and non-massaged leg muscles. Instead, they discovered the cells from the legs treated with massages contained 30% more of a specific gene that help build mitochondria -- the "power generators" of the cells where glucose and oxygen react to create energy. In addition, the non-massaged legs had three times the amount of a gene associated with muscle inflammation.

The study summarized the findings thusly:

When administered to skeletal muscle that has been acutely damaged through exercise, massage therapy appears to be clinically beneficial by reducing inflammation and promoting mitochondrial biogenesis.

These findings seem to dovetail with other recent studies that have found regular exercise promotes the process of autophagy -- the cellular mechanism by which the body processes unneeded components for re-use as energy sources.

Whether this study completely overturns the existing preconceptions connected with the effectiveness of massage therapy remains to be seen but, if nothing else, it indicates a promising new avenue of inquiry to understanding the processes behind recovery and injury prevention.