Massages for top-performing runners: What type? When? And how often?

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Getting a massage is such a treat. You’ve worked hard and need to relax, but for runners; it is an imperative part of a run plan. Scheduling massages around your training not only feels great but helps speed up recovery after a long run, reduce muscle soreness, enhance your flexibility and is also a tool used to aid injury healing. But timing is everything: when is the best time in your training plan to book your massage? What should you expect? And how do you work with your massage treatment to maximise those body benefits?

I’ve been treating and educating high-end athletes with massage and manual therapy since 2015. As a runner myself, I have learned to incorporate massages into daily life, slotting it in alongside training, to make sure my body push for those ultra distances. Massage is magic; find out how it can work for you…

Massage forearm technique

What kind of massages am I looking for as a runner?

Just because you do sport, doesn’t mean you’re limited to a ‘sports massage’ every time you book (it’s all about timing remember: we’ll go through that later). Consider how skilled your massage therapist is, and have that conversation of where you are in your training and what you need – they should be able to oblige and advise.

Swedish massage.

Probably the most well-known massage technique and associated with spa treatments mostly, however they have their place for your days before big competitions. Its prime goal is muscle relaxation and enhance bloody flow, which is done through long, flowing strokes (effleurage), light in pressure.

Swedish massage can be best used days before your race (as part of tapering) or as a tool to aid recovery from a hard workout or run. The light, long strokes help relieve any muscle tension (perfect for the legs after a long run) without damaging muscles. And more often than not, you jump off the massage couch feeling re-energised.

Swedish massage on lower legs

Sports massage.

As a sports massage therapist, before I qualified further, I found that the Sports massage package is the most versatile, and sometimes (not always) more painful. It works with YOU the athlete, the timing of your training, and each body part’s needs.

For example, runners often complain of calf and hamstring tightness, which requires myofascial releases, deep tissue (which can be painful) and relaxing coaxing into the muscles. However may also complain of neck tightness, and thus will utilise trigger point therapy and manual stretching techniques (MET’s and PNF’s) even joint mobilisations to ease your neck.

On another avenue, sports massages can be used as a warm-up, to excite and activate muscles before a run, event or competition and that’s why you will find queues at events before the run has even started (and yes, it is safe to do so!)

Sports event running massage on hamstrings of a runner

Trigger point therapy.

I’ve broken down trigger point therapy and its theory into a do-it-yourself guide, but basically, this technique targets muscle ‘knots’ (the build-up of tension into a palpable, painful lump). The therapist will use all sorts of tools and techniques (from acupuncture to elbows) to ultimately release the knot – and let me tell you, it feels wonderful once the session is over. But it can be quite a painful process.

Trigger point therapy is best used to treat muscular imbalances, that may be causing injury (or further muscular balances further on down the line. For example, I get a lot of ‘knots’ around my shoulders. The tension affects my arm swing when I run, and in turn, puts me off balance – that affects my stride and places too much demand on other parts of my body to compensate.

Trigger point therapy treatment on a woman’s neck

If that sounds familiar, get a tennis ball, foam roller or book a trigger point focused session ASAP! These sessions can be sore and intense, so make sure it does not come too close to a hard session or race. It would be perfect in-between recovery sessions or on a day (or two) off. The following day you can schedule an easy recovery run, stretch session or yoga but I advise no lifting or sprinting because your muscles are getting used to a re-setting, almost.

Note: There are many different types of massage but these are the most common I found to help athletes and runners, most. Of course, you need to find what works for you, so if it is hot stone or bamboo, then run with it! (Pun intended).

Hot stone massage for runners

How often should I get a massage?

In all honesty, how often you get a massage is completely down to you and your finances, your training intensity and, honestly, how much you actually enjoy massages.

If you can afford it, getting a massage weekly or bi-weekly will significantly help in preventing potential injuries, catching muscle imbalances before they become a problem. However, I would advise you to work around your rest weeks, and rest days.

For example, my ultra-training works on a three-week cycle:

  • Week 1: mid-range intensity.
  • Week 2: high-intensity and mileage.
  • Week 3: recovery week.

Even though I stretch and yoga each day throughout, Week 3: Recovery, features longer yoga sessions, foam rolling and massages. I plan long relaxing baths around recovery runs and the less intense tempo sessions which make such a difference upping the ante as the cycle starts again. Likewise, if you train to your menstrual cycle, there is a week that aligns with your natural biology begging for a recovery week – so use it, and book a massage.

Deep tissue massage on lower legs

What can I expect from a massage?

  • Like training smarter not harder, your massage doesn’t have to hurt to be effective. Some techniques working tighter areas are likely to cause discomfort, but it shouldn’t make you want to jump off the couch, or dread going!
  • Drink water before and after your massage to help flush out the toxins from muscles, and frankly, to rehydrate – your muscles have been worked.
  • Don’t expect to feel re-energised after a massage. Often you can feel lethargic and heavy; which s perfectly normal – do not schedule an intense session just after your massage. Use this as a day or afternoon off at the very least.
  • A 60-minute session will be more like 45 minutes of treatment, the remaining 15 minutes is for an important discussion about your body’s needs and training status, and get yourself under the towel. Use that chat time! It’s important to make the 45 minutes as focused on your ailments as possible.

I’m not a fan of pre-event massage but post big run? I could stay on that massage couch for an entire week! What do you prefer? Let us know what type of massage works wonders for you.



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