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Massage probably won’t make you faster 

 •  • by Paul Ingraham
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Weekly nuggets of pain science news and insight, usually 100-300 words, with the occasional longer post. The blog is the “director’s commentary” on the core content of a library of major articles and books about common painful problems and popular treatments. See the blog archives or updates for the whole site.

Pre-event massage is no better than a warmup for sprinters, according to Moran et al. In fact, it’s probably worse.

There’s never been much evidence about pre-event sports massage, just a couple other scientific studies since 2007 (Goodwin, Fletcher). Now this new one about it has provided another negative conclusion. Seventeen sprinters were tested with four combinations of massage, dynamic warmup, and an ultrasound placebo. They found that “massage decreased 60-meter sprint performance in comparison to the traditional warm-up.”

Decreased. A traditional warmup was better.

Nick Ng has thoroughly described the study for Massage & Fitness Magazine, with lots of added value from an interview with the lead author, Dr. Ryan Moran. Good stuff.

Pre-event sports massage has always been a sketchy idea

I don’t know if anyone ever believed that massage would speed up a sprinter — that’s a bit of a reach even for fans of pre-event massage. But it has always been implausible that massage before any kind of exercise/competition is helpful, and it’s not hard to imagine ways it could even backfire. For instance:

  • A blast of novel stimuli can be surprisingly disorienting even if it’s invigorating.
  • There’s the phenomenon of post-massage soreness and malaise — any hint of that is obviously a problem for performance.
  • Same with even a small amount of pain. Probably at least 10% of vigorous massages will cause some kind of discomfort (Carnes 2010), mostly minor and transient of course, but not what you want right before trying to perform!

When I was taught pre-event sports massage in school, I was actually warned to be quite cautious, because it really had the potential to throw an athlete off kilter.

Too small to matter?

Moran et al. was such a small study that some readers have expressed concern about its value, but there’s less cause for such concern when the results are negative (supporting the null hypothesis). An unpowered study can undermine a claim like “pre-sprint massage enhances performance” more credibly than it can support it.

For sure there is an epidemic of unpowered studies in musculoskeletal medicine that are perpetually muddying the waters (something I’ve often griped about), and this could be considered an example of that. But underpowered isn’t necessarily useless, and in this case I think it makes a modest, worthwhile contribution. It’s not the last word, but of course no study ever is.

I’ve updated both my general article about massage science and my article about massage side effects with this topic.

PainSci Member Login » Submit your email to unlock member content. If you can’t remember/access your registration email, please contact me. ~ Paul Ingraham, PainSci Publisher