Monday 30th January, 2023

Does massage help athletic or sports performance: with practical advice

Athlete on starting block
We show you the ways massage can help sports or athletic performance

Professional sports clubs have long used massage as a way to help their athletes, and more recently various self massage options have made this more available, but does massage help performance?

Based on a review of 38 trials and other scientific papers we find that just having a massage before you compete won’t make you run faster or jump higher, however there are three proven ways massage can help your performance.

  1. Massage before competition
  2. Massage after competition (recover faster, back to training sooner)
  3. Regular massages (improve muscle health, remove impediments to performance)

We will also look at the various massage and self massage options, discussing the pros and cons of each.

  1. Conventional massages from therapists
  2. Vibration massage
  3. Foam rollers
  4. Massage guns

Massage before competition

Having a conventional massage before competition is unlikely to increase your performance (1)⁠. However, according to the results of many clinical trials the application of vibration massage of 30-60 Hz before exercise will enhance strength ⁠ (2,3)⁠, and increase the time taken for muscles to fatigue (4)⁠. We will discuss how to do this in the section on vibration massage.

For more information please see our article Warm-ups: a guide to reducing injuries, increasing performance, and reducing post exercise soreness .

Massages after a workout or competition

The microscopic structure of muscles
Strenuous exercise damages these microscopic structures

If you play sport or work out seriously you will understand that for a few days after you may be a bit stiff and sore, and your muscles will have reduced strength and endurance. This is because the exercise causes microscopic damage to your muscles, and you need recovery time while that microscopic damage heals. If you are less sore and recover faster you will be more motivated to train and able to train again sooner. Let’s look at how each massage option can help.

Conventional massages from a therapist

There have been a large number of clinical trials using conventional massage after exercise. In summary:

  • in over half showed no benefit at all ⁠⁠ (5–13)⁠,
  • a small percentage showed massage to reduce post exercise soreness (14–16)⁠
  • a small percentage the massage reduced the post exercise stiffness and loss of function ⁠⁠(17–19)⁠.

Vibration massage (not massage guns)

Vibration massage has produced by far the most benefit in clinical trials. We found nine studies where vibration massage was used after exercising. They consistently showed that this:

  • reduces post exercise soreness (DOMS) ⁠⁠(20–27)⁠
  • reduces the loss of function and speed recovery ⁠(27,28)⁠, and
  • blood chemical analysis shows that unwanted chemical are removed much faster ⁠(23,25,27)⁠.

Foam rollers

Despite the marketing a recent review of 21 clinical trials found that foam rollers only had minor or negligible effects on post exercise recovery (29)⁠ while others express concerns about the potential damage they may cause (30)⁠.

Massage guns (percussion massagers)

As will be discussed later massage guns are a hybrid device built in an attempt to combine vibration and conventional massage. Vibration is highly beneficial, but massage guns deliver far less of this than a genuine vibration massager. The is no scientific benefits of “percussion”, and when percussion massagers are trialed they are modified to eliminate the “percussion” and maximise vibrations.

More advice on recovery

Rather than just rely on a form of therapy we recommend a complete strategy to help provide everything your muscle need to recover. This includes appropriate rest, hydration, nutrition, plus various other things that can help. For more information please see our guide The practical, science based guide to post exercise recovery .

Regular massages (improve muscle health, remove impediments to performance)

Regular massages can be used to enhance the health of your muscles, and in particular help remove issues that can inhibit performance. In this section we will look at:

  1. The issues in your muscles that can inhibit performance
  2. Examples of where regular massages have enhanced performance.

The issues that can inhibit performance

If you have had a massage no doubt the therapists will have found tightness and tender lumps, then you would have felt “looser” and “freer” after your session. The tightness and lumps actually inhibit your muscles from working normally. The most common of these are (myofascial) trigger points) which have been shown to:

  • cause muscles to abnormally tighten (restrict movement and cause injury),
  • have reduced strength, and
  • fatigue faster.

For more information please see our article on the effects of (myofascial) trigger points on sports and athletics performance .

Examples where regular massage have enhanced performance

Trial one: regular Thai massages during a training camp (31)⁠

Athletes attending a training camp over 10 days were given three 30 minute Thai massages. These were done in the evenings. Compared with the athletes who received no massage the recipients had:

  • greater measured oxygen uptake (VO2max)
  • greater strength, speed and agility.

Trial two: ten week training camp in preparation for a 10k race (32)⁠

During a 10 week training camp preparing for a 10 km race half the athletes received a weekly half hour massage. 100% of those receiving the massages finished the race, while only 53% of the others finished.

Trial three: regular vibration massage reduced fatigue ⁠(33)⁠

During a three week training camp athletes received a 45-52 Hz vibration massage each evening. They suffered reduced fatigue compared with those who received no vibration massage.

Your massage options

Conventional massages

These are massages performed by professional therapists and usually include techniques such as “rubbing”, “kneading” and “stroking”. These massages vary considerably depending on the needs of the client, and the skills and preferences of the therapist.

The scientifically proven effects of vibration massage
Summary of the scientifically proven effects of vibration massage

Vibration massage (not massage guns)

Vibration massage is where the vibrating head of a massager is placed over the part to be massaged and the vibrations are allowed to penetrate and have their therapeutic effects. This is very similar to the way ultrasound works. Ultrasound is just vibrations at a higher frequency. Therapeutic vibration massage has several huge benefits.

Excellent therapeutic effects

Science has found that vibrations in the therapeutic range of 30-60 Hz (cycles per second) have excellent therapeutic effects. For more information please see our article  The scientifically proven effects of vibration massage- with clinical applications . Most vibrating massagers you can buy will not deliver professional standard vibrations (34)⁠, so it is very important that you check out our article that shows you how to choose one that does .

Excellent penetration

Just like ultrasound professional standard therapeutic vibrations penetrate very deeply. They have no trouble reaching deep into any muscle.

Excellent safety & no pain

Because it is the vibrations that penetrate there is no need for the physical pressure that causes pain and can easily cause injury or damage.

You can do it yourself

There is no need to know any special massage to do vibration massage. Basically all you need to do is sit the head of an appropriate vibration massager on the part to be massaged and let the vibrations penetrate. As long as you hold the machine in the right spot it will do the same job as if a professional was holding the handle. For more information please see our article How to use a hand held massager .

Foam roller vs professional therapist

Foam rollers

Foam rollers are devices that enable users to self apply pressure that imitates the techniques that professional therapists use. They are heavily advertised, and promote self massage. However, as we discussed in the scientific results above they only give marginal or no benefits in clinical trials. This infographic shows the main reasons why.

Vibration vs percussion vs conventional

Massage guns (percussion massagers)

Percussion massagers are a hybrid machines that try to combine vibration and conventional massage. In this diagram the device on the left is a vibration massager while the tool on the right is a t-bar which therapists use to save their thumbs and apply deep (painful) pressure. As you can see massager gun makers have basically converted the a t-bar into a “jackhammer” designed to drive it’s head into the muscle.

The idea of combining vibration and conventional massage is an excellent marketing gimmick, but the reality is that they deliver far less therapeutic vibrations than a genuine vibration massager, while driving the head into the muscle has no proven benefit and is potentially very harmful. Colleagues tell me that they have seen lots of damage caused by massage guns, and there is even a report in a scientific journal of a person who nearly died from injuries received trying to help her muscles relax after cycling (35)⁠⁠. For more information please see our article  Are massage guns effective- beyond the hype .

Resource for fitness professionals

Please check out our video guide for fitness professionals


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  2. Alghadir AH, Anwer S, Zafar H, Iqbal ZA. Effect of localised vibration on muscle strength in healthy adults: a systematic review. Physiother (United Kingdom)
  3. Pamukoff DN, Ryan ED, Troy Blackburn J. The acute effects of local muscle vibration frequency on peak torque, rate of torque development, and EMG activity. Vol. 24, Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology. 2014. p. 888–94.
  4. Otadi K et. a. A prophylactic effect of local vibration on quadriceps muscle fatigue in non-athletic males : a randomized controlled trial study. J Phys Ther Sci. 2019;31:223–6.
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  29. Percival S, Sims DT, Stebbings GK. Local Vibration Therapy, Oxygen Resaturation Rate, and Muscle Strength After Exercise-Induced Muscle Damage. J Athl Train. 2022;57(5):502–9.
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  35. Chen J, Zhang F, Chen H, Pan H. Rhabdomyolysis After the Use of Percussion Massage Gun : A Case Report. 2021;1–5.

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Dr Graeme

About Dr Graeme

Several years ago Dr Graeme, a Chiropractor practicing in Victoria, Australia was looking for a serious hand held massager his patients could use at home to get the extra quality massage they needed. The ones he found in the shops and on-line for home use looked nice but were not serious, and... read more

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