The Multi-Faceted Role of Massage in Training

By Melissa Hall, LMT

This will be the first article in a 3 part series on massage:

Athletes seek massage for many different reasons, to: relieve soreness, reduce recovery time, increase performance, prevent or recover from injury, and retain balance in the body’s energy systems. Whatever your competitive level, massage is beneficial and should be a regular part of your optimal training plan.

A Physiology Lesson

Exactly how does massage work? Massage works in so many ways, it would be beyond the scope of this paper to explain them all. Not to mention, science is still discovering all the ways in which massage brings healing to our bodies. The intention of this article is to explain some of the major benefits of massage to the circulatory and musculoskeletal systems.

In order to begin, we must first lay a foundation with some discussion of connective tissue. The main tissues we will include are: tendons, ligaments, muscle tissue of the musculoskeletal system, and fascia.

Muscle tissue is contractile in nature. It is this contraction or shortening of the muscle that brings about the movement of our bones. The “harder” the contraction, the more shortening occurs in the tissue, the more force is generated. The degree of muscle recruitment also determines the force generated by the contraction. You may have most memorably experienced this phenomenon when lifting weights. You contract your muscles, but the weight doesn’t budge. So you try a little harder, still nothing. Again, try a little harder, and the weight moves. Your brain was guessing at the number of muscle fibers it needed to recruit in order to move the weight. When the first guess yielded nothing, it recruited increasingly more muscle fibers until there was success. Your brain may have based its guess on muscle memory (you have been working out with this weight recently) or may have made a determination based on no previous input. Healthy muscle tissue is supple and resilient. It has some ability to stretch. And, when relaxed, it should feel soft to the touch.

Fascia is a very special connective tissue. You have fascia in every nook and cranny in your body from the top of your skull down to your pinky toe. It serves many purposes within the body. It holds things in place – like organs, it forms a bath tub for your spinal cord to be washed in cerebrospinal fluid – the meninges, and it wraps and separates numerous parts of the body – like muscles. Have you ever considered how your muscles lay together, one on top of the other and squeezed in next to each other? What keeps them from just mushing all together? Fascia. Consider the front of your thigh. What’s there? Your quadriceps. Quad – meaning four. So, you have four very large muscles on the front of your thigh. Did you ever wonder why you need four muscles to do the one job of extending the knee? Well, each quadricep works with a different timing and force at various stages of knee extension. There is a choreographed dance that occurs within the muscle group as you stand up out of a chair. One portion of a muscle fires, then another, working in harmony for the ultimate goal. Within each muscle, the fibers run in various directions. They do not run just straight up and down from the top of the femur to the knee, but at various angles to allow each muscle to be specialized, affording you virtually limitless choices on when and how to move your body. Because of this, there is relative motion that occurs between each of the four quadriceps. They do not move together at the same time, with the same contractile rate, or in the exact same direction. Thus, the need for fascia – myofascia to be more specific (myo meaning muscle, myofascia being that which is specifically associated with muscles). The myofascia wraps and separates each muscle and allows for the relative motion to occur. Myofascia also absorbs a portion of the stress that we conduct in our bodies when we run. As a matter of fact, laying down additional layers of fascia to handle the increased stress is one of the adaptations that occur in new athletes or those increasing their workload.

Tendons attach the muscles to the bones. I used to wonder exactly how this occurred. What did nature use to complete this attachment – a nail? Well, no, nature is incredibly more intricate than that. Fascia has a fibrous element. It is a fairly fibrous substance, but certainly not the most fibrous. At the end of the muscle belly, the myofascial wrapper comes together and gets increasingly more fibrous until it forms a tendon. This is one end of the intersection at muscle and bone. On the other end, our bones are wrapped in a tight layer of fascia known as the periosteum. Our tendon knits into the periosteum, forming the attachment site. The periosteum is so tight and the knitting is so strong that often the bone itself cracks (stress fracture) and gives before the attachment will.

Ligaments are connections from bone to bone. While muscles create movement, ligaments attempt to restrict movement. For instance, we do not want our knees moving from side to side. We only want them to move forward and backward. Thus, we have an complex system of ligaments in our knee to prevent unwanted motion. Ligaments are incredibly strong due to their highly fibrous nature. Ligaments are neither contractile nor supple in nature.

Now that we have laid out a basis for the physiology necessary to understand the full impact of massage, we can continue next time with the effects of massage on these tissues.

One Step Beyond Assistant Coach Melissa Hall – October 2006