We've all heard that rolling out your muscles with hand-held massage sticks and full-sized foam rollers can work wonders following exercise, but have you ever wondered if you can get a massage then workout?
While the actual evidence supporting or negating that is questionable, the research that does exist on the subject of pre- and post-event massage is eye-opening, to say the least.
It's best to get a massage following a workout, as opposed to preceding it.
Pre-Event Performance Pitfalls
A widely-referenced December 2008 study published in the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine found that pre-workout massage in healthy males led to diminished performance in vertical jump and sprint tests, reducing both speed and reaction time. It was this study that first busted the massage after exercise myth.
A decade later, an August 2018 study published in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy supported this claim, uncovering that longer, pre-exercise massages aren't recommended, as they hinder performance. That said, many believe that massage is best left following a workout, or 24 hours beforehand.
Consider the Side Effects
In a small 2010 study of 16 children published in the International Journal of Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork, researchers found that pre-exercise massage led to higher heart rates and heavier breathing during the actual workout. While no further adverse effects occurred, the results indicate that opting for a massage before hitting the gym can actually cause you to tire quicker and potentially experience shortness of breath.
The Lactic Acid Debate
One of the main reasons athletes and everyday workout warriors schedule massages and perform DIY roll-outs is under the assumption that doing so will rid the body of lactic acid. While massages absolutely help reduce muscle tension, promote relaxation, increase range of motion, and decrease stiffness, the same can't be said for lactic acid reduction.
In a revered June 2010 study published in the Journal of Medicine and Exercise in Sports and Science, it was revealed that 10-minutes of massage following a strenuous forearm workout actually decreased blood flow, a surprising revelation considering the popularly held belief that massage increases circulation. As such, the lead authors on the study surmised that massage doesn't help rid the body of lactic acid build-up after all.
Massage Then Workout
While full body massages may not be the best physical option leading up to a workout, brief rub-downs are said to, at the very least, improve your mindset during the workout. According to a January 2008 study published in the Journal of Social, Behavioral, and Health Sciences, women who received quick, light 10-minute massages experienced a more positive mindset, effectively reducing the feeling of effort and self-diagnosed physical symptoms while running (like cramps or shin splints).
As a result of these findings, Gretchen Reynolds went on to publish her 2012 book The First 20 Minutes, which, in addition to many other lessons, details how a pre-event mini massage can be majorly motivational.
Workout Then Roll Out
Well, what about after a workout? In a February 2014 study published in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, male participants who received 10 minutes of roller massage following a workout exhibited less soreness in the minutes and hours following treatment, making it a solid choice for recovery.
Just keep in mind that the time between your workout and your massage matters. In a June 2014 study published in the Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, researchers found that massage within the first 15 minutes following a workout helped prevent delayed onset muscle soreness at a greater rate than waiting to get a massage 48 hours later.
Although the study was conducted on rabbits rather than humans, its findings are worth mentioning because it proves that massage can be beneficial for post-workout recovery, especially if it's done immediately following the sweat sesh.
Which brings us to the final consensus: If performance and soreness-avoidance are your goals, it's likely best to wait to get a massage until after your workout.
- US National Library of Medicine: Acute Effects of Pre-Event Lower Limb Massage on Explosive and High Speed Motor Capacities and Flexibility
- US National Library of Medicine: Is Pre-Performance Massage Effective to Improve Maximal Muscle Strength and Functional Performance? A Systematic Review
- US National Library of Medicine: Measuring the Effects of Massage on Exercise Performance and Cardiopulmonary Response in Children With and Without Heart Disease: A Pilot Study
- US National Library of Medicine: Massage Impairs Postexercise Muscle Blood Flow and "Lactic Acid" Removal
- Semantic Scholar: Psychological Effects of Massage on Running
- US National Library of Medicine: Specific and Cross Over Effects of Massage for Muscle Soreness: Randomized Controlled Trial
- US National Library of Medicine: Massage Timing Affects Postexercise Muscle Recovery and Inflammation in a Rabbit Model
- Google Books: The First 20 Minutes