Sports Massage: An Introductory Guide

Sports massage is used by athletes from an array of sports for purposes such as recovery from intense exercise, clinical rehabilitation, pre-competition training, and manual therapy for musculoskeletal injuries. It is often performed by physical therapists, though therapists at spas also offer this type of massage. What does a sports massage consist of and what are its proven benefits?

Sports Massage

Sports massage is similar, to a certain extent, to Swedish massage in that it utilizes kneading, deep circular motions, long strokes, and, sometimes, tapping and vibration. Geared towards athletes, it involves the manipulation of soft tissue — muscles, tendons, fascia, ligaments, and skin. It aims to correct imbalances, tightness, and pain caused by repetitive, strenuous exercise, and to help heal trauma. Sports massage can help athletes achieve better results by helping to speed up recovery and prevent injury.

The Four Main Techniques Used in Sports Massage

Four techniques commonly used in sports massage (and Swedish massage) include effleurage, petrissage, frictions, and tapotement. Effleurage mainly involves stroking or sliding the hands over skin and it usually takes place at the beginning and end of a sports massage, as well as between different stages. The therapist can vary their intensity and speed, using lighter or deeper strokes as required. This technique can help improve circulation and warm superficial tissues up while also allowing the therapist to discover problems.

Petrissage is the ‘kneading’ part of sports massage and its purpose is to stretch muscular fibers, boost lymphatic and venous return, relax muscles, and boost the interchange of fluids. Frictions involve running the fingers or thumbs back and forth over specific areas to break down scar tissue, stimulate healing, separate the adhesions that form between fibers, and more.

Finally, tapotement involves striking the skin with both hands alternately, using the lateral side of the pinky finger. This stimulates the skin and prepares the muscle for physical activity. Therapists use massage guns as a form of tapotement, since doing so also promotes blood flow and warms muscles up. Massage guns can also be used to reduce stress and enhance sleep and focus. They are a common tool for home use as well as professional therapy sessions.

What are the Proven Benefits of Sports Massage?

Many studies have shown the different benefits that sports massage can have. These include improvements in blood pressure, mood states, and perceptions of recovery. There is also a link between massage and temporary changes in grip performance and flexibility of the hamstring area. Evidence also suggests that sports massage can be helpful for chronic and subacute (lasting four to 12 weeks) lower back pain. A recent review (Davis, 2021) has found that although there is no evidence that sports massage improves performance directly, it may improve flexibility and delayed onset muscle soreness (pain and stiffness of the muscles which usually arise between 24 and 72 hours post-exercise).

Sports massage is a technique that is used by athletes to soothe tightness, hone flexibility, and improve pain and soreness. It usually involves four techniques — effleurage, petrissage, frictions, and tapotement. Recent reviews suggest that massage has many proven benefits in addition to relaxation, which is key for athletes wishing to keep stress and anxiety at bay.


By Jess Walter