Sports Massage for the Beginning Cyclist: How It Can Help…How it Can Hurt!

Sports massage is a powerful training tool that, like any other, requires adaptation. Here's how to get the best results from this highly beneficial aid to competitive cycling training.

It's two days before your first bike race. Your training has been going great, but you're feeling like you want to have that extra edge. You look in the yellow pages and find a local massage therapist who specializes in sports massage. In a one-hour session she works on your legs, gluteus and lower back. She tells you to drink lots of water that evening, and wishes you luck in the race. The next day you feel heavy and lethargic on your training ride. You can't get out of your own way! The snap and spring you had early in the week is gone. There are some sore spots in your butt, and you even feel a little scratchy in the throat. In the race you feel OK, but not your best and you finish feeling discouraged. The massage is the only thing you can attribute to this poor performance, and you vow never to make that mistake again. All the talk about sports massage must be good marketing.

Unfortunately, this scenario is not too far-fetched for a cyclist who does not get regular massage. Massage is a powerful tool, and like any training method, the body must learn to adapt to its results. Sports massage is best incorporated into your program starting in the winter months. The main goal of maintenance sports massage is to help the body exchange blood and fluids from old and toxin-loaded to fresh and oxygenated. Sports massage is fairly vigorous and can create a feeling of heaviness the next day. Like hapless athlete above experienced, it can even move enough toxins out of the muscles to create funny feelings…like a "scratchy" throat. These responses will happen rarely, and once the body learns how to use the massage, they will be replaced by a warm, healthy glowing feeling.

Strong sports massage sessions are best planned for early in the training week. Monday or Tuesday (especially following a race), is the perfect day for massage. This gives the body plenty of time to process the effects and use the new blood for faster recovery. In my experience, massage on the days preceding an event should be fairly light massage, with a technique known simply as "flushing." This technique is exactly as it sounds…moving the lactic acid out of the muscles with light, brisk strokes. An effective flush can be done late in the race week with fairly light strokes. Some athletes prefer work just on the back the day before a race, although everyone's body is different. If you are fortunate enough to have sports massage as one of your available tools, experiment with what works best for you in terms of pressure, type of massage and timing. The right combination gives the extra edge guy earlier in the story was looking for!

Besides aiding recovery, sports massage can achieve other goals that are key to athletic success. A well-trained therapist can help you solve problems of recurring pain, especially in the back and knees. Massage sessions incorporating deep tissue techniques can address the low back pain that may have been haunting you in races. If your therapist is tuned into cycling he or she can go further with you and look at the relationship with your pain and the way your bike, shoes and pedal positions all interact. New developments in techniques like active-release stretching can also be of great help to a cyclist. This method of helping the athlete stretch while holding specific points in the muscle is designed to release longstanding impingements and areas where blood may not be flowing well. It can also be a great way to jumpstart the stretching routine you probably do not have in place!

The most important thing to remember when considering massage is whether or not the therapist has experience with athletes and sports massage. Conventional massage may be somewhat effective, but it may be disappointing if you leave the session feeling like you could have just put lotion on yourself for an hour! Good energy, physical strength and endurance are essential ingredients to look for in your therapist. The ability to communicate well about what works best for you and what your needs are will facilitate the best outcome for you and your adventures in sports massage!

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