Next time you finish one of those “I’m going to be sore for days” endurance workouts, try a quick massage. Your friends may mock you as a lightweight, but you could be helping your muscles recover faster. In a recent study, researchers put 11 young, healthy men through a strenuous workout—the kind that’s almost too hard to finish.
To see the effects of massage on muscles, they took muscle biopsies of both legs—before and after exercise, and after 10 minutes of Swedish-style massage. The massage was given right after the workout. The brief massage affected two specific genes in the muscle cells.
The first gene decreases inflammation caused by exercise, similar to the relief you get from certain pain medications. The second gene turned up production of mitochondria in the muscles. These are the power houses of cells. They use oxygen and the broken down products of food to generate energy needed by the cells. As muscle cells become adapted to endurance exercise, the number of mitochondria increases. Massage seems to help this process along. Other studies have shown that treatments for sore muscles—such as ice baths and anti-inflammatory medications—can reduce inflammation. These tend to block muscle repair and growth.
Massage, however, appears to not only make you feel better, but also speed up muscle recovery. Researchers also found that the massage did not decrease the amount of lactic acid in the muscles, something often given as the reason for post-workout massages. Still, this research bumps massage up a notch, making it less awkward to limp up to the massage tables at the end of a big race.