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Sports Medicine

Therapeutic Massage

Get rubbed the right way

Susan Dawson-Cook | February 29, 2016

While diligently training for another state meet or nationals, it’s easy to forget that rest and self-repair go a long way to improving performance. A great way to rejuvenate an exhausted body is to invest in a therapeutic muscle massage.

Heather Waddle, a licensed massage therapist in Tucson, Ariz., provides therapeutic muscle massage in addition to other types of massage for a variety of clients, including athletes.

“Muscles need periods of rest and healing,” Waddle says. “The major benefit of a massage for a competitive swimmer is the relaxation of muscles constantly worked in preparation for races.”

Fast swimming, like any intense athletic training, causes micro-tears in muscle fibers that can lead to pain, inflammation, and restrictions in movement. “Adhesions occur when muscle fibers become overworked and ‘glue’ together to shore up the area consistently overworked due to training. Separating those fibers with friction massage releases the muscle,” Waddle says. Once that’s accomplished, the swimmer will experience better function and performance.

Massage also dilates blood vessels, improving circulation and enabling fresh oxygen and nutrients to be more readily delivered to muscles. This process promotes the removal of toxins and byproducts that can build up during exercise. These physiological responses result in reduced muscle soreness and enhanced recovery.

Waddle recommends that athletes budget for a minimum of one massage a month. Similar to the way the body adapts for exercise, it also adapts to bodywork, enabling the swimmer to benefit more as time goes on. “Muscle memory kicks in when massage is consistent. The body knows it’s massage time and everything relaxes into treatment quicker and soreness is considerably reduced,” she says.

Waddle also encourages massage newbies to be vocal about tender spots. “When a technique hurts, tell [the massage therapist]! If it’s painful, your body instinctively tenses.” What’s it like to work on tense muscles? “It’s like digging through half-set concrete,” Waddle says. Breathing deeply and listening to tranquil music can enhance relaxation of mind and muscle throughout the massage.

So from a recovery standpoint, massage can be a massive help, but how about before a big event? Should swimmers rush to get a massage therapist to rub them down before a race?

“I wouldn’t recommend super deep massage prior to competition,” Waddle says. “Deep massage breaks up adhesions, but can leave you sore for several days. It’s good post-competition to flush the muscles of lactic acid, aid in general circulation, and stretch the fibers after they’ve been put to the test. Prior to competition, a stretch-based, range-of-motion massage that focuses on the shoulders and the latissimus dorsi gets muscles loosened up without causing discomfort that might hinder performance,” she says. Another side benefit of this type of massage is that it can help alleviate prerace anxiety.

If you’re ready to turn your sore muscles over to a professional, Waddle suggests getting a recommendation from your local swimmers. Another option is to look up licensed massage therapists in your area. “Be sure to ask about education and if they have experience working with swimmers,” Waddle suggests.

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About the Author—Susan Dawson-Cook

Susan Dawson-Cook, M.S., is a swimmer, an author, and an AFAA certified personal trainer and group exercise instructor. In addition to feature writing, Susan has published 12 romance novels under the pseudonym Sabrina Devonshire, including the four-book Navy SEALs of Valor series.
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