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What to Know Before Getting a Sports Massage

Photo: Isang Smith

You go to the spa all the time for some full-body bliss, and you're a sucker for the plush white robes and fruity water. But getting a straight-up sports massage is a totally different experience. We tapped Isang Smith, a licensed massage therapist with On Point Sports Care in New York City, to dish about what first-timers need to know, why sports massages are vital for fitness fiends, and whether or not you should strip down for your sports-specific rubdown.

Who should get sports massages?

Isang Smith: Everyone! I work with a wide range of active people, from weekend warriors to professional athletes.

OK, but why?

IS: It can help you recover faster, reduce muscle tension, decrease fatigue, increase range of motion, improve athletic performance, and prevent injuries. It's also an opportunity for me to ask questions regarding a person's training approach, and to make recommendations for their health and wellness team. (Thinking about signing up for a race? Tell your massage therapist, and ask yourself these questions before you register.)

What should first-timers expect?

IS: Most people have different goals when they come in. Some are recovering from injury, and others may be in the middle of a training cycle and want to take full advantage of their recovery day. Usually you'll fill out a patient intake form providing information about your health history and goals. Then we'll go over what your workouts look like, your race schedule, and what areas may be causing pain or feeling tight. We'll do a postural assessment to check your range of motion, and then we'll start the session to assess tissue quality and to work on any issue areas. I also like to find out what your self-care routine looks like, and to educate patients on the benefits of foam rolling, stretching, and strength training. All that self-care stuff is just as important as getting a massage.

What might surprise people who are used to going to a traditional spa for their massages?

IS: How customized a session can be! Many people assume getting a sports massage just means getting dug into with no mercy. You're not necessarily going to be holding onto the table for dear life! A well-trained therapist will know the key areas to focus on in relation to your sport or injury, and they'll choose the most effective techniques for you. You might also be surprised by how tight you are once I show you where your range of motion is for things like a quad or hip flexor stretch!

What makes a sports massage different than a "regular" massage?

IS: The principles are different. It comes down to the timing, technique, and purpose of the work. If an athlete wants to have a massage before a big event, the purpose is to help him or her get warm and increase blood flow, so we'll do a lot of stretching or compression. If an athlete needs a post-event massage to recover from fatigue or decrease recovery time, we'll use lighter techniques to decrease inflammation. If I'm working with an injured athlete, my purpose is to assist where I'm need for things like proper formation of scar tissue. When you get a traditional massage, like a deep tissue or Swedish massage, it's more likely to be a very general experience with no major variations in pressure or technique.

Be honest: Am I going to be sore afterward?

IS: You might be! Some athletes experience post-massage soreness, but not always. When we break up adhesions in the muscle to relax and lengthen it, micro-tears can develop in the tissue, bringing in blood and healing. Or when the tension is relieved on muscle fibers that were tight because they were recruited to bring tension off a key tight muscle fiber, that specific area can be very sore. (Remember: Proper post-run recovery is key, with or without the massage.)

And stay honest: Should people go commando for sports massages?

IS: It depends on your comfort level and session goals! If you just want to get stretched out, you can wear loose-fitting clothes, no problem. For other athletes, I might have to dig into muscles like the glutes or hip flexors, so wearing tight shorts can affect the quality of the massage. I recommend bringing a pair of loose shorts just in case, but we can always use the sheet to drape where needed. You do you.

How often do you recommend getting a sports massage?

IS: That depends on your training volume and intensity, or if you're experiencing chronic pain or have an injury. For regular maintenance, I recommend coming in once or twice a month, or if you're working through an injury or high stress from training, make it weekly. We can help!