According to a recent article published in the April issue of the British Journal of Sports Medicine, massage is commonly believed to improve muscle regeneration following vigorous exercise, despite the absence of clinical evidence.
“There’s no proof that massage improves repetitive athletic success either,” says study author Brian Hemmings, PhD, a researcher at University College Northampton in the United Kingdom. “However, there might be psychological effects that shouldn’t be underestimated.”
Hemmings looked at how massage affected success and regeneration in eight amateur boxers. Participants performed two similar punching trials, and slept or got a massage in between. Researchers measured the boxers’ blood lactate levels as well as their expectations of regeneration.
As the body burns carbohydrates for energy, lactate is generated. Lactate builds up in the body during prolonged exercise, reducing performance and inducing muscle aches and pains. It is, in a way, what induces the “harm” without which no “benefit” can be achieved.
There was little difference in blood lactate levels between those who underwent massage and those who slept, despite the fact that massage improved the sense of regeneration. Similar findings have been made among riders, according to Hemmings.
“It’s thought that accumulating blood lactate slows muscle regeneration,” he states. “Lactate levels are believed to be reduced by increasing muscle blood supply. However, not all tests have shown that massage helps to remove lactate.”
Another writer praises Hemmings’ work in a subsequent editorial. Michael Callaghan, MPhil, a senior physiotherapist at Manchester Royal Infirmary in the United Kingdom, says, “This research has demonstrated that massage is no different from passive regeneration in lactate removal.” “The findings should hopefully put this particular ghost to rest,” Callaghan says, citing similar findings among runners.
One American doctor, on the other hand, isn’t so confident. “There are a lot of misconceptions regarding post-event massage, particularly among marathon runners,” says Lewis Maharam, MD, president of the American College of Sports Medicine’s New York Chapter. Maharam, who has served as the medical director for many marathons, tells WebMD that massage will help with muscle healing when done correctly.