What makes it a Sports Massage?

A massage therapist massaging a woman's calf muscle

What makes it a Sports Massage?

Sitting down to write this piece opened up a rabbit’s hole, actually an entire warren, of topics surrounding massage therapy. It has a fascinating history, and I am very lucky to be a part of its future.  But for now I intend to keep this fairly brief for the time-pressed readers among you.

Where massage, or a form of therapeutic touch, originated is difficult to pin down and is likely to be as old as humanity itself.  Our instinct to rub a sore spot could conceivably have led to offering to treat others’ hard-to-reach places (such as the back – a favourite treatment area for many clients!). There are references aplenty demonstrating the practice of massage in the ancient cultures of China, Egypt, India, Greece, and so on.

The Birth of Physiotherapy

A massage therapist massaging a woman's calf muscle

Indeed it seems that massage has waxed and waned as an orthodox, mainstream treatment for peoples aches and pains over the centuries. The introduction of Swedish Massage in a gymnastics setting (accredited in the 1800’s to Per Henrik Ling and developed further by Johan Georg Mezger) appears to have set the foundation for remedial massage in the West.  After scandals caused by the sex industry, the Society of Trained Masseuses formed in 1894 in the UK. This developed over time and in 1944 becoming The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, as it stands to this day.

The new profession of Physiotherapy looked to broaden its scope of practice (developing some great new approaches along the way). However this led to the reduced focus on massage until it disappeared almost entirely from undergraduate physiotherapy training.  My wife is a physiotherapist and was taught massage skills for only a few days within a 3-year degree. In contrast, my qualification followed a full year focussed purely on massage techniques and their role in injury rehab.

Reintroducing Manual Therapies

It was during the first running boom in the 1980’s, that industry leaders such as Mel Cash started to explore the application of massage to a sporting context. The benefits quickly became obvious to therapists and athletes alike.  (Mel ultimately became Founder and Director of the London School of Sports Massage (LSSM) and the Institute of Sports and Remedial Massage (ISRM), of which I am a member). The blending of ‘traditional’ massage techniques with advanced methods used by Osteopaths led to the development of the highest level of massage qualification.

‘Soft Tissue Therapy’ practitioners are experts in assessing, treating and rehabilitating a range of minor and chronic injuries and painful conditions.  So how does this circle back to Sports Massage?  Well, fundamentally ‘Massage’ is… massage, and ‘Sports Massage’ is massage given in a sporting context – be that pre- or post-competition or training, or performed on an athlete/sports person.  However, it is commonly misconstrued as ‘like massage but harder’, and almost by inference, ‘painful’!  Yet – It doesnt have to hurt, and thanks to advances in research we can extrapolate with some confidence as to why…

The Science…

Scientific research into the efficacy of massage is, frankly, pretty poor.  On the strength of the research available to us, if massage was a pill sold by a pharmaceutical company then you’d seriously question any doctor willing to prescribe it!  However, we can make cautious assumptions about what is occurring in the body when it is receiving massage. This based on our understanding of the neural responses to touch (1)(2).

This helps us to dispel myths and/or question unsupported claims about ‘energy flows’, ‘releasing’ sticky layers of tissue, ‘affecting blood circulation’ (3) and so on.  We have greater confidence that massage primarily effects the recipients’ nervous system, notably the autonomic system. This may explain the marked improvements clients can experience in their mood (specifically depression and anxiety) (4), range of movement, pain perception, and overall well-being. 

We know that in and of itself, massage is seldom a cure for someone’s ills. But based on the evidence available, we understand that it can form an important part of a client’s journey. It can lead to enhanced movement, reduced pain (5), and ultimately greater fulfilment in life.  When properly paired with informed assessment and evidence-based rehabilitation advice, massage can provide a window of opportunity for clients to take responsibility for their own health improvements. They can be an elite athlete, or someone wanting to enjoy playing with their grandchildren


  1. Massage-StLouis.com [Internet]. Sanvito A. How Does Massage Work?; 2016 December 31 [cited 3rd December 2019]]
  2. Loken LS, Wessberg J, Morrison I, McGlone F, Olausson H. Coding of pleasant touch by unmyelinated afferents in humans. Nature Neuroscience. 2009 May;12(5):547–548.
  3. Shoemaker JK, Tidus PM, Mader R. Failure of manual massage to alter limb blood flow: Measures by Doppler ultrasound. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 1997;1:610–14
  4. Moyer CA. Affective massage therapy. Int J Ther Massage Bodywork. 2008;1(2):3–5.
  5. Jane SW, Chen SL, Wilkie DJ, Lin YC, Foreman SW, Beaton RD, Fan JY, Lu MY, Wang YY, Lin YH, Liao MN. Effects of massage on pain, mood status, relaxation, and sleep in Taiwanese patients with metastatic bone pain: A randomized clinical trial. Pain. 2011 Oct;152(10):2432–42.