How a Soft Tissue Therapist can help prepare athletes for competition and recover after it.
The main function of sports massage for athletes is to enhance their performance and to prevent injury. It will help discharge pressure and physical & emotional tension after a heavy workout session. Massage and soft tissue techniques can be used on athletes during pre-competition/pre-season, during competition (rest periods within competition and inter-competition) and after competition.
Different techniques will be more beneficial at each stage. The way that the body reacts to physical workouts and is reconditioned afterwards is called "General Adaption Syndrome" (GAS). The rest period after activity facilitates recovery and improvement of physical characteristics.
A therapist can use massage as an aid to eliminate fatigue and reduce recovery time thus allowing the athlete to recover quicker and sustain an increased number of training cycles. Massage after competition is more of a restoration treatment.
In terms of pre-competition the therapist can help by detecting problems or anomalies, locating possible discomfort or tension that might prevent injury or reducing any motor/coordination constraints. Massage and soft tissue therapy can help reduce recovery time between workouts and could also help to increase workout duration. Techniques such as passive stretching and joint mobilisation combined with prolonged deep tissue massage across wide areas after workouts will benefit the athlete. This deeper massage is probably not a good idea within 2 days prior to any competition.
During the period of pre-competition prolonged massage is necessary - the athletes priority will be to improve the quality of their workouts and condition their body best they can. Function at this stage is to provoke active drainage and renewal of muscle tone that improves metabolism.
Massage immediately before competition should be short, not deep and should concentrate on warming the muscles, increasing blood supply and prepping the body for action. Ideally it should be of short duration (5mins), be of high/vigorous tempo and should be shallow, stimulating but painless. The muscle conditioning has been done prior; this is more stimulating and should be done before the athletes normal dynamic, technical or tactical training before the event. A therapist can help psychologically at this point by asserting a positive attitude towards the competition and the athletes state of current conditioning. Feel confident, perform with confidence. A stimulating pre event massage uses tapotement massage techniques such as hacking, kneading and beating and pounding. A pre event massage can also be a relaxing experience aiming to decrease stress levels and calm nerves before important competitions or races. Before competitions, adrenaline increases and emotions of stress and anxiety rise which can have a negative effect on the body and affect performance badly. Increased stress can also result in high muscle tone. High tone reduces flexibility and function of the muscles and will therefore affect athletic performance negatively. A massage also decreases the stress hormone from being released and controls the levels of adrenaline. A pre event massage uses a variety of massage techniques to increase blood circulation into the muscles, increase temperature and improve tissue elasticity. Pre event massage can help ease acute pains. A pre event massage helps decrease pain by increasing blood circulation, loosening muscles and stimulating the pain gate theory.
A therapist can also help with massage during rest periods within an event (e.g. between heats or whilst waiting). At this stage, the muscles have already been activated and warmed from workout so the idea is to warm and soothe the areas that are sore from workout or most prone to muscular overuse. It's best for this to be a short (5-10 min) and shallow relaxing massage which also helps with the athlete maintaining attention and focus on the event rather than disconnecting from it.
Inter competition massage (i.e. where a competition typically ranges over a number of days) would be focused on exploring areas of damaged tissue (strains, overload, muscle fatigues, cramps etc). Since it's likely to be next day competition, a longer duration (40min), a deeper massage and a more relaxed tempo would help to attempt to stall fatigue.
A post competition massage is performed from 30 minutes up to 72 hours after competition or activity. Many massage techniques are utilised to increase blood circulation, remove metabolic waste and calm muscles down after activity. Post event massage uses light pressured techniques alongside passive stretching to help regain normal muscle resting lengths after strenuous exercise. A post event massage helps treat and prevent delayed onset muscles, fatigue and tightness. It will help improve the elimination of waste via venous return and help the athlete disconnect from competition. At this point the therapist is seeking to treat excess tension and overloaded muscles. Passive stretching and joint mobilisation along with breathing relaxation techniques can all aid well being. It's also a good opportunity for the therapist to be a sounding board for how the competition went.
Getting to know the athlete's body, how they train, how the recover, what works for them and what strains and pains they are susceptible to will help in the different pre, during and post competition phases.
Psychologically it's also important to give the athlete feedback on his progress, increasing motivation, confidence and ultimately performance.
Help with taping and strapping of joints during preparation and competition would also be useful if that aids performance or psychological well being during workouts.