Just how effective is a massage post exercise?

Research suggests that active recovery is the best way of enhancing lactate removal after exercise

After exercise, one of the factors contributing to fatigue is the build-up of excess lactic acid in muscles. Massage has been advocated as a means of speeding up post-exercise recovery – it is claimed that this is due to three effects:1) Increasing local circulation
2) increasing cellular permeability (thus enabling easier passage of lactic acid out of muscle cells), and
3) A soothing effect on central and peripheral nerves

However, there hasn’t been much concrete information to back up these claims – and the evidence that exists is conflicting. Researchers in India therefore decided to investigate the effect of massage on post-exercise lactate levels, comparing it with active and passive recovery.

Ten male athletes took part; at the time of the study they were undergoing pre-competitive season training. Prior to the investigation, each volunteer took part in a graded exercise session on a bicycle ergometer to determine their VO2 max. For the study itself, supramaximal exercise (150% VO2 max) was carried out in sessions of 1 minute of exercise on the cycle ergometer, followed by 15 second recovery periods until exhaustion. The athletes managed between 3 and 5 such bouts.

After this exercise, one of the following recovery modes was used:
1) Passive Recovery: Resting in a relaxed sitting position for 40 minutes

2) Active Recovery: Pedalling on a bicycle ergo-meter at 30% of VO2 max for 40 minutes
3) Massage Recovery: The application of massage for 10 minutes. Massage was provided by a qualified physiotherapist, and consisted of kneading and stroking the upper and lower limbs

Each volunteer tried out a different mode of recovery on a series of three occasions – the order determined by a computer random number generator. There was a minimal interval between exercise/recovery sessions of 48 hours.

During recovery, fingertip blood samples were taken just after the exercise, and then at 3, 5, 10, 20, 30 and 40 minutes after exercise was completed. Samples were analysed for lactate levels. Peak lactate and 3 minute lactate levels were not significantly different for the different modes of recovery. After this point, however, a significantly higher rate of lactate removal was seen for Active Recovery when compared to either Passive Recovery or Massage Recovery. There was no significant difference in lactate levels between Massage Recovery and Passive Recovery at any stage of measurement.

 The researchers therefore concluded that an active type of recovery is the best way of enhancing lactate removal after exercise. Massage was deemed ineffective for affecting post-exercise lactate levels.

It must be noted, however, that the period of massage investigated was very short – the rationale being that 10 minutes would be the usual length of rest periods in a game situation. If more time were available, a longer period of massage which included the whole body might come up with better results. Thus, the results of this study are only relevant to situations where there are short rest periods between periods of activity.

(Gupta et al, ‘Comparative study of lactate removal in short term massage of extremities, active recovery and a passive recovery period after supramaximal exercise sessions’, Int J Sports Med vol 17(1996), pp106-110)

Janet Pidcock

Share this

Follow us