Source: When to get a massage | Ella

My relationship with endurance sports started in 2010 with my divorce. I needed something to works towards to keep my sanity during the three-year ordeal and my friend’s words to me threw a switch inside my head:

Do you have any idea how far outside the city you can get if you run for three hours?

I didn’t know, which is why I set out to find the answer. At the beginning I did well, but soon I found myself suffering from overuse injuries. I worked with coach Ross Martinson and his partners at Philamassages and Excel Physical Therapy. Perhaps it was this early experience that put me so in tune with the care and maintenance of my body, but I like to believe I had always made it a priority.

In the beginning I did PT three times a week and massage once per month. I found the massage to be a great drain on my wallet that left me feeling drunk and high for the rest of the evening — not a bad deal, honestly, but not greatly beneficial to my performance. The PT was very helpful to me, but unfortunately after six months of 3xweekly sessions I was still incapable of increasing my training load without triggering my old injuries.

Please don’t misunderstand, my therapists at Excel and Philamassages were great people, very skilled and knowledgeable, but there was something missing from the mix that was preventing me from success.

When I came to Japan I knew that I needed to continue some kind of regular body care. After a year of searching I finally tried out a Dr. Stretch session while bored one evening at a conference. Dr. Stretch is a chain of massage and stretch therapy clinics that employs young graduates to do a combination of loosening your muscles and then stretching them out. They’re thing is

Dr. Stretch: Even the pros ask for us!

Maybe it was because I’m a single 30-something and their young trainers are all deliciously vibrant, or maybe it was because I wanted to be serious about my training, but I bought a multi-pass and started going in every week. At ¥6000/hour ($60 before nice Mr. Abe trashed the exchange rate), I consider the price most intensely reasonable.

At first my sessions were an exercise in pain tolerance. We laughed that I was the noisiest, stiffest, most interesting client at the clinic and that my trainer got the most glee out of causing pain of any one there. Win-win? After about six months, though, something started to change. Instead of just pain everywhere, the pain started to concentrate in predictable locations. And the quality changed, too. There was scary pain, as in, “omg, she just touched my skin and it hurt, what’s going to happen when she starts putting pressure?!” and there was rewarding pain where you could feel your muscles opening up, heating up, and swallowing the stimulation. I also discovered I was ticklish in some weird places. Who is tickling in their ankle? Me, apparently. I experienced acute pain when my trainers accessed my inner stabilizer muscles, and general diffuse pain when it was my larger muscle groups suffering from the week’s abuse that were taking the brunt of it.

In the article I read today on Ella, some of the commenters expressed skepticism about the clinically proven benefits of massage. Can I say that my massage sessions are improving my performance? Well, I can’t say it’s because I recover faster, no. But I have noticed a marked increase in the general level of suppleness of my muscles. When I was twelve I had my first massage. I wouldn’t have another massage for 16 years after that, but I remember the woman working on my back saying that it felt like telephone cables running down my spine. This was at twelve years old, so to finally, at 32, experience an increase in the softness and flexibility of my muscles is really exciting. I know this will help me prevent injury.

More than the increase in flexibility, I think what I gain from my weekly sessions is the feedback. Looking back, my overuse injuries exhibited a particular pattern. On my left side I had tendinitis and ITBS which lead to pain in my knee and my leg randomly buckling underneath me (particularly embarassing when on a date wearing a skirt). On my right I had piriformis syndrome. Thinking about body mechanics, the calf and quad both push while the hamstring is a puller. Moreover the piriformis is a glute muscle on the inner side (left side, in my case) of the hip joint. I also exhibitied a weird pattern when I would race where my right quad and left hamstring would get sore, but not the other way. In going to massage therapy every week I learned that my right quad was larger than my left and tended to exhibit fatigue characteristic of healthy exertion where my left quad would exhibit tightness more characteristic of a muscle that was being bullied and stretched against its will by its partner muscle, in this case my left hamstring. What I couldn’t tell as a runner was that my shoulders were also imbalanced in exactly the same way, with the stronger muscles being the ones that engage to steer and stabilize the bicycle when using my stronger leg to push down on the pedals.

I started thinking about my massage experience when training. I tried making various changes to my body position while in the saddle. One day, miraculously when I shifted my sit bones about 8º counter clockwise, my weaker left arm, left ITB, left calf and right glute all engaged at once! I had discovered the source of my injuries and it was thanks to my regular work with my therapists at Dr. Stretch.

To those of you who are wondering if massage therapy can help you, I give a whole hearted yes! My therapists can tell when I’m stressed at work (my shoulders lock up), when I don’t sleep well or stay up late squinting at my computer screen (my neck), when I need a down week (quality of my muscle tissue changes), when I’m in good form (more flexible, less painful) and when I’m getting out of balance again (shift in the pattern of tightness). This feedback is invaluable to me. Combined with the goals I set out with my cycling coach at YOU CAN, starting my week with my regular massage helps me assess my performance and lay out a plan for the upcoming week of training.

Most good coaches will tell you that numbers help, but listening to your body is critical. Weekly massages are critical to receiving and interpreting the messages your body sends you and I recommend that anyone who is serious about their training include at least a short massage (40 minutes) into each and every training cycle. For me, that’s weekly. I know it’s expensive, but physical therapy is more expensive and will only get you back to functional level, it won’t take you to the top.

Do you use massage as a tool in your training? How does it benefit you? Let me know!