Sports Massage: What Is It, Benefits and Risks

Written by: Kevin Cash



Time to read 14 min

Are you curious if a sports massage can boost your fitness journey or help you recover from injuries? A sports massage might be just what you're looking for to stay in peak condition or push your limits further as an athlete.

We'll explore the unique sports massage techniques and how they speed up muscle recovery. Sports massage can help if you're getting ready for a big race, dealing with tight muscles, or just trying to get the most from your workouts.

A sports massage isn't just for professional athletes, it's for anyone looking to improve their physical well-being. Let's explore how this hands-on approach to fitness and health could revolutionize how you care for your body.

What Is a Sports Massage?

Athlete getting Sports Massage

A sports massage specifically targets the muscles used in a particular sport. It helps athletes improve performance, reduce the risk of injury, and speed up recovery.

This massage became popular in the United States in the early 20th century with support from famous athletes like Olympic runners Paavo Nurmi and Lasse Viren. They credited regular sports massages as a crucial component of their training and a key factor in their success.

Sports massage therapists help athletes train, recover, and achieve their goals. However, their services are not limited to elite or amateur athletes — anyone active can benefit. Both physiotherapists and sports massage therapists can meet the needs of both professionals and the general public (source).

Sports Massage Techniques

Sports massage consists of a collection of massage techniques specifically designed to help athletes and active individuals. These techniques aim to help them achieve peak performance and recover from intense workouts.

Let's dive into some key sports massage styles and how they are used.

1. Swedish Style Massage

Therapist massaging arm

Swedish massage is a fundamental technique used in sports massages. Research has shown that it not only helps alleviate pain and stress but also assists in managing specific conditions. These conditions include back pain and the side effects of cancer treatments.

The Swedish style of massage involves a variety of movements, including:

  • Percussion - Percussion is rhythmic tapping to relax and refresh.

  • Kneading - Kneading means gentle squeezing to ease muscle tension.

  • Vibration - Vibration uses fine shaking movements for relaxation.

  • Tapping - Tapping refers to light drumming with fingertips or the edge of the hand.

Swedish massage offers more than just relaxation. Its long, smooth strokes energize the body and enhance overall health.

2. Effleurage

Therapist doing Effleurage massage technique

Effleurage is a massage technique where therapists use light pressure to glide over your muscles, similar to a gentle caress. It prepares your muscles for a deeper massage by first increasing blood flow.

The effleurage technique offers benefits in several situations:

  • Relaxation - Effleurage stimulates the release of feel-good hormones, allowing your body to relax. It helps lift your spirits and ease tension by coaxing your body into a calm state.

  • Post-Injury Support - Effleurage gently guides lymphatic fluid away from the injury site, reducing swelling and promoting healing.

  • Post-Surgery Recovery - Effleurage aids fluid drainage in your lymph system, potentially counteracting surgery's effects on lymph function and facilitating recovery.

3. Petrissage

Therapist performing Petrissage massage technique

Petrissage strokes play a crucial role in tackling muscle stiffness and improving flexibility. The petrissage massage style is used for maintaining muscle health, aiding passive recovery, and enhancing performance.

Petrissage is a classic massage technique that involves:

  • Kneading - The kneading motion on your muscles is similar to working dough.

  • Deeper Pressure - Petrissage uses deeper pressure to target stubborn muscle layers.

  • Improving Circulation - Petrissage massage improves circulation, which is good for warming muscles up for action.

4. Compression

Woman getting relaxed with back massage

The compression massage technique involves applying pressure to larger muscle areas by laying hands over them and pushing down onto the tissues. The pressure of compressions can range from light to very deep.

Compression strokes in a sports massage work towards achieving the following:

  • Promote Relaxation - Ideal for unwinding after a tough workout.

  • Relieve Muscle Tension - Compression massage enhances the stretch reflex.

  • Alleviate Acute Pain - Compression interferes with pain signal pathways.

Whether you're a preparing athlete for competition or just trying to stay active and pain-free, compression can help.

5. Friction

Therapist performing Friction massage technique

Friction massage is a technique that generates heat by rubbing the palms together on the client's skin. This heat soothes nerves and muscles and breaks down scar tissue.

Friction massage is great for:

  • Speeding Up Healing - Friction massage increases blood flow, which helps boost the natural healing process.

  • Addressing Targeted Areas - One technique, known as deep transverse friction massage, utilizes precise finger movements to apply a force that traverses the targeted tissue area.

6. Tapotement

Tapotement massage technique performed by therapist

Do you need a quick boost or a lively recovery session before your event? Tapotement's rapid fingertip-tapping movements to stimulate muscles could be the solution.

Let's look at what tapotement does:

  • Increases Blood Circulation - Tapotement increases blood flow, essential for warming up the body and recovering from injuries.

  • Stimulates Nerve Endings - Tapotement stimulates nerve endings as a physical and mental wake-up call.

  • Uses Quick Strokes - Quick massage strokes are great for pre-event preparation or post-event recovery.

7. Vibration

Woman happy with back massage

Vibration, or shaking, is not just for calming nerves. It's a pre-competition ritual that can lead to better performance and a reduced risk of future injury.

Key attributes of the vibration massage technique:

  • Loosening Muscles - Vibration helps loosen muscles, essential for increasing flexibility and motion range.

  • Rapid Movements - Rapid massage movement can be used over specific areas or a whole-body massage for quick preparation.

Including vibration in your sports massage routine helps to prepare your muscles for action.

8. Stretching

Therapist stretching client

Flexibility is key for athletes. Stretching during a massage helps with muscle relaxation and lengthening.

Stretching techniques for massage include:

  • Passive Stretching - Massage therapists do the work with deep, gentle stretches.

  • Active Stretching - Active stretching is your part of the process, focusing on improving flexibility.

  • Dynamic Stretching - Dynamic stretching mimics your sport activity movement to prepare for physical activity.

Whether you're a professional athlete or just enjoy staying active, adding stretching to your massage routine can help you perform at your best.

9. Percussion

Therapist using massage gun in client

Looking for a high-tech boost to your recovery? Percussion massage uses innovative tools offering deep tissue pulses to speed healing and relieve pain.

Use percussion massage technique for:

  • Increasing Blood Flow - Increased blood flow is essential for recovery and pain relief.

  • Soft Tissue Repair - Percussion massage accelerates tissue growth and repair from injuries.

  • Muscle Tone Improvement - Percussion massage helps to reduce tightness and stress.

Percussion is great for intense training recovery. It offers benefits like stronger muscles and less soreness.

10. Gliding

Therapist performing Gliding massage technique

Gliding is a fundamental sports massage technique that involves long, flowing strokes in the direction of blood flow. This method is highly effective for reducing inflammation and calming your muscles.

The gliding massage technique is good for:

  • Warming Up - Gliding spreads oil and prepares your skin for a more intense massage.

  • Relaxing Muscles - Gliding is a gentle, comprehensive treatment for muscle relaxation.

  • Understanding Your Body - Massage therapists who use the gliding technique have a better understanding of the human body. This helps make the massage more effective and therapeutic.

11. Trigger Points

Therapist pushing trigger point

Trigger points in the muscles can cause localized pain and discomfort. These pressure points can often also lead to other areas of the body, even leading to spasms and weakness. They can form within soft tissues due to overuse, injury, muscle imbalance, or post-surgery.

Trigger pointing is considered the most effective method for relieving pain symptoms when treating inactive trigger points. Trigger pointing is your go-to for:

  • Muscle Knots - Trigger pointing is a highly effective massage technique for treating muscular knots.

  • Different Types of Pain - Trigger pointing offers relief for both acute and chronic pain.

  • Improving Muscle Function - Trigger pointing helps you move more freely and with less discomfort.

Whether you have a chronic pain issue or just a particularly tight spot, trigger pointing can make a significant difference.

Benefits of Sports Massage

Man getting upper back massage
A Sports massage can help athletes and active people perform better and recover more quickly from injuries. In addition to these immediate benefits, it offers long-term advantages to overall health. Let's explore how sports massage can be a game-changer in your wellness and exercise routine.

1. Improve Muscle Recovery

Sports massage has proven to be effective in improving muscle recovery because it increases blood and lymph flow. This helps deliver oxygen and nutrients, which are crucial for fixing muscles. The improved blood flow also helps remove exercise waste products and toxins from the muscles.

Intense physical activity can damage our muscles, often leading to micro-tears in the muscle fibers. This results in muscle soreness and fatigue, making it challenging for athletes to perform at their best. Sports massage can help athletes bounce back quickly between training sessions and competitions.

2. Enhance Performance

Improved muscle repair from sports massage can benefit athletes, improving overall performance. McMaster University researchers found that a 10-minute massage raises muscle mitochondria, the cell's powerhouses. These help muscles quickly turn oxygen into energy, boosting them.

Sports massage can be a recovery technique and potentially impact performance, as found in a 2016 study on bodybuilders. Also, sports massage therapy among athletes increased sports performance by 84% of participants (2020 study).

Athletic massage is helpful for achieving fitness goals, even for small achievements like preparing muscles to run longer distances.

3. Helps Prevent Injuries

Sports massages prepare muscles before a workout or training session, making them less prone to strains and sprains. It helps muscles relax, reducing the risk of painful trigger points or other conditions impacting performance and overall health.

Regular sports massages can spot tension or weakness in the body's muscles and bones. This helps athletes find injury-prone areas early to act before problems become serious.

Preventing sports-related injuries is important and incorporating a sports massage into an athlete’s routine can greatly enhance their ability to stay injury-free and perform at their best.

4. Reduces Tension

Massage is highly effective in reducing tension following a sporting event or workout. Exercise can result in hypertonia, muscle spasms, stiffness, and pain, making it crucial to alleviate these symptoms. Massage facilitates muscle healing and restores effective movement, offering substantial relief from increased tension.

Sports massage can reduce delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and edema by approximately 30% (source). Massage was also linked to a 13% improvement in muscle soreness measures (source).

5. Increase Flexibility

Our muscles and soft tissue can become stiff and limited in movement as we age. This can be a problem for running, jumping, and lifting, which require flexibility.

One effective way to improve flexibility is through sports massage. Tight muscles can be relaxed by sports massage, allowing them to stretch more comfortably and further. This, in turn, improves flexibility and ultimately enhances an athlete's overall performance.

Sports massage specifically targets muscle tension and adhesions that limit an athlete's range of motion. Skilled therapists use stretching and rubbing to relax muscles and fascia. This increases flexibility and reduces injury risk.

6. Decrease Muscle Spasms

A massage helps reduce muscle spasms, the involuntary contractions that cause mild twitches or severe cramps. They can stem from muscle dehydration, poor circulation, or not stretching before a high exercise intensity.

Sports massage helps by reducing muscular tension and fatigue, making these spasms less likely. It also breaks down excess lactic acid, a byproduct of intense exercise efforts that can leave muscles sore. This helps you feel better and get back to your next workout faster.

7. Improve Sleep Quality

Massage therapy has been found to positively impact sleep quality. Massages help you relax by releasing serotonin, the neurotransmitter that boosts mood. It also helps make melatonin, the hormone that is key for sleep.

Good sleep is vital for athletes who often experience high physical and mental stress levels. They usually appreciate the physical benefits of sports massages. However, the mental health benefits are also important. These include relaxation, better sleep, and lower anxiety.

A recent study among athletes found that sports massage therapy helped 90% of them and improved their quality of life. Also, 99% of the athletes found it beneficial and were willing to recommend it to other athletes, based on the same (source).

Risks of Sports Massage

Therapist massaging client

When done by a skilled professional, sports massage is usually safe and has few side effects. However, it's good to know about the small risks it carries.

After a sports massage, you might feel tender or stiff for a day or two. Some people might also react to the oils used, especially if they have sensitive skin.

If you do feel uncomfortable during or after the massage, it's okay. But remember, it shouldn't hurt a lot. If it does, talk to your therapist right away. The intensity of a sports massage depends on how much pressure you can take, what techniques are used, and which body parts are being treated.

Just like with any medical procedure, there are times when it's not safe to get a sports massage. Inform the therapist about any injuries or conditions you have before starting the massage, as it could potentially worsen the situation.

Here are some reasons why you might need to skip the sports massage for now:

  • Muscle Injuries - If you have a muscle tear or rupture, getting a massage too soon can worsen it. Wait a few days or longer if it's a serious injury.

  • Infections - Massaging over an infection can spread it. It's best to wait until you're all healed.

  • Bleeding Disorders - A massage can be risky for people with bleeding disorders like hemophilia, where the blood doesn't clot well.

  • Tumors - It's best to see a specialist if you have a known tumor or strange lumps. Regular massage might not be safe.

  • Pregnancy - Make sure your therapist is trained in prenatal massage. Pregnant women have to avoid certain areas to keep the baby safe.

This list covers the basics, but it's not everything. If you have a condition not mentioned here or not sure if it's safe, talk to your doctor first.

When Should You Get a Sports Massage

A sports massage isn't just reserved for professional athletes — it's for anyone aiming to enhance physical performance and overall well-being. When you schedule your sports massage, it can make a big difference in how beneficial it is. It's important to consider whether you're getting ready for a specific event or if you want to maintain your long-term health.


Getting a massage before a race or workout can be helpful to some athletes. They prepare their bodies and tissues for upcoming events or intense workouts. These massages look to reduce the risk of a sports-related injury and improve focus during the event.

Pre-event massages can also help decrease pre-competition anxiety and improve muscle preparation. These massages typically involve light pressure and rapid motion that boosts blood flow and warms muscles beforehand.

It's important to note that there may be soreness experienced after a pre-race massage. It’s usually temporary and should subside within a day or two. This soreness is often followed by improved range of motion, reduced muscle tension, and overall well-being.


Recovery massage plays a crucial role in athletes' post-race or post-workout routine. It is typically performed the day after an athletic event or game to optimize muscle recovery and prevent post-event soreness. This massage technique utilizes light to medium pressure to promote blood flow to tight muscles.

The increased blood flow achieved through post-event sports massage is beneficial for athletes as it aids in the repair of damaged muscles. It can help soothe and ease fatigued tissues, preventing DOMS.

The pace of a post-race massage is slow, rhythmical, and gentle. These 15 to 20-minute massages can "flush" the legs and promote circulation. For a more comprehensive approach to recovery, a stronger massage should happen 48-72 hours after the race. It can address any lingering muscle soreness, tension, and imbalance.

Maintenance Massage

Regular sports massage should be a custom therapy plan that focuses on the unique needs of individual athletes. It focuses on speed recovery, boosting performance, and preventing injuries for an athlete.

Sports maintenance massages use various massage techniques that are more intense. These include deep tissue work, Trigger Point Therapy, Muscle Energy Technique, joint mobilization, specific stretches, and strength exercises. These methods aid in releasing tension, increasing flexibility, and restoring optimal function.

A maintenance sports massage is a valuable addition to an athlete's training program, especially for those preparing for endurance events like marathons. But avoid scheduling a massage right before a game or event. These deeper massages can trigger soreness afterward and negatively affect performance.

Regarding the frequency of sports massage therapy among athletes, findings revealed that 28% of participants opted for monthly sessions, with another 5% receiving it weekly. According to a study conducted in 2020, 32% of individuals reported utilizing massage treatment plans at frequencies other than the commonly reported ones, such as less frequent or quarterly sessions (source).

Injury Treatment

Massage therapy has a longstanding history of being used by healthcare practitioners to treat illness and injury. It has been used for centuries to alleviate pain and promote healing. 32% of participants reported that the primary benefit of sports massage was treating injury, pain, or discomfort (source).

Sports massage therapy is effective in treating specific soft tissue injuries. By targeting specific areas, sports massage aids in reducing inflammation, improving circulation, and relieving muscle tension.

Trained therapists utilize various techniques and methods to reduce recovery time and facilitate the athlete's return to physical activity. The duration of treatment sessions for these injuries can vary from 30 minutes to an hour, depending on the severity and nature of the injury.

Sports Massage FAQs

1. What Is the Difference Between Sports Massage and Deep Tissue Massage?

A sports massage vs deep tissue massage therapy share some techniques, but have different goals. Sports massages aim to improve athletic performance and prevent sports injuries. Deep tissue massage, on the other hand, targets chronic muscle tension and pain, using strong pressure to treat the body.

2. What Is the Difference Between Sports Massage and Swedish Massage?

A sports massage involves deeper pressure and techniques like muscle stretching to prepare for and recover from physical activity. In contrast, Swedish massage is known for its gentle, relaxing, classic massage approach. It uses smooth, flowing strokes, kneading, and circular movements to create a calming experience.

3. What Should I Wear for a Sports Massage?

It's best to wear loose, comfortable sports attire for a sports massage. This allows the therapist to easily massage the areas they need to work on. Tight clothing can get in the way and make it harder to apply the right techniques.

4. How Long Is a Sports Massage Session?

Sports massage sessions usually last 30 to 60 minutes. This time frame ensures the therapist can focus on effectively improving your muscle condition. A pre-massage or post-massage assessment may also be needed for the therapist to better understand your needs and the massage’s effectiveness.

5. What to Expect During the Massage Session?

During your sports massage, the therapist will ask about your specific issues, medical history, and what you want to achieve. This information helps them personalize the treatment to meet your needs, using the most effective soft tissue techniques.

6. Will I Be Sore After the Sports Massage Sessions?

Feeling sore for a day or two after a sports massage is common. Drinking plenty of water and avoiding intense physical activity will help your body recover quicker. Consider taking it easy for a day to let the sports massage benefits fully take effect.