How Massage for Triathletes Works

By: Jane McGrath
This triathlete shouldn't have to massage his own feet.
This triathlete shouldn't have to massage his own feet.
Horst Freidrichs/Workbook Stock/Getty Images

Physical touch is a powerful thing. A simple hug can brighten a bad day, while an unwanted touch is cringe-inducing.

Some would say touch -- and especially massage -- can be healing for the distressed mind and soul. But if you're skeptical about such mystic ideas, consider that several scientific studies have shown evidence of tangible physical benefits from touch, and disturbing consequences from the lack of it. Premature babies do much better, for instance, when massaged daily. Famous studies conducted in the 1970s showed infant rhesus monkeys don't develop normally when deprived of touch.


Consider, also, the endurance of massage over thousands of years across Eastern and Western cultures. The earliest reference to massage we know of dates back more than four millennia [source: Cassar]. Ancient societies in China, India, Rome and Greece left evidence of their use of massage in art and writing.

Massage has even proven to be beneficial to athletes and helped in their performance. But sports massage is a bit different from the kind of massage you'll get at a spa. You won't need the special oils or ambiance of soothing music and floral scents. You don't even need to strip down -- sports massages are perfectly effective with clothes on. Nevertheless, you'll still reap the fruits of relaxation, along with several other benefits for the active body.

Due to their thorough and rigorous workouts, triathletes in particular benefit from massage. We'll go over techniques geared specifically toward the muscles used in swimming, cycling and running.

As if the physical stresses on all of these muscles weren't bad enough, triathletes also bring to the massage table a fair amount of mental stress. This is all the more reason why massage is increasingly seen as an important step in a triathlete's training routine, as well as warm-up and cool-down on the day of the event.


Benefits of Massage for Triathletes

A targeted sports massage for a triathlete can work on the muscles primarily used in the competition. This will include the back, neck and shoulders for swimming, and the lower back for cycling and running. Finally, it should work on the legs for all three events.

A proper massage will leave you feeling better, though you may not know why. How can simply rubbing and putting pressure on muscles actually benefit your body and performance in a triathlon?


One of the primary benefits of a sports massage is that it boosts blood circulation in areas near the skin that may not get as much circulation normally. Working a muscle will momentarily push blood out of an area, and then allow blood to rush back in with fresh nutrients like oxygen. You can see this process at work: When you put pressure on skin, it pales as blood rushes out, while releasing pressure makes it redden as blood rushes back. When done well, this massaging process will also help your body pump blood to the heart, while pushing metabolic wastes (like lactic acid) out of your system. One sports massage technique involves stroking in the direction of the heart on limbs to best assist circulation.

Perhaps most important is how a massage can help a triathlete's recovery. An experienced massage therapist working closely with a triathlete can actually help speed up injury rehabilitation. This largely has to do with how the nutrients introduced by improved circulation help repair tissue.

A masseuse can also relieve pain through sports massage by working on trigger points, which are spots where the muscle is especially tight and sensitive. The location of these depend on the individual athlete and his or her training routine. By stretching muscles and loosening tissues, massage can relieve tightness and get rid of spasms. The process also improves flexibility and helps reduce the potential of future injuries. This can be a great relief for a training routine that puts strain on particular spots in your body.

But apart from these physiological advantages, don't underestimate the psychological advantages of massage. Physical relief and relaxation helps concentration. And you can bet that you'll perform better when your body is more attuned and focused on the competition.


Types of Massage for Triathletes

Though they all look the same to the untrained eye, triathletes get several different types of massages. The thorough maintenance massage is for the training period. This is a deep-pressure massage that uses all the main strokes (see sidebar) and is good for working on trigger points. It can last between 30 and 90 minutes, ideally done once or twice a week for a triathlete.

Experts sternly warn against getting a comprehensive maintenance massage on the day of a triathlon. Your body needs time to adjust before and after the competition. For the big day, however, it's perfectly fine -- and highly advised -- to have a warm-up massage and cool-down massage.


Taking the time for a 20-minute warm-up massage about half an hour before a triathlon will do wonders. The strokes should be relatively light and painless, but can help loosen tight muscles and invigorate your whole body. Focus on the legs, upper and lower back, and shoulders and neck because of their importance in the triathlon.

The post-event cool-down massage will ease muscle tension and soreness as well as hasten recovery in general. As we discussed earlier, the flushing of blood and fresh nutrients to the muscles will help rid them of metabolic waste. The cool-down massage can be longer and deeper than the warm-up massage. However, make sure not to massage any new injuries. The athlete should provide feedback to let the masseuse know of more sensitive and painful areas.

Because you'll probably have to cough up between 50 and 100 dollars for a thorough maintenance massage, you might not be able to afford them as often as you'd like. Instead, experts say a good substitute is the self-massage.

Massaging yourself isn't hard with the right toys, such as a foam roller, which can be used to work on areas important to the triathlon, including the legs, back and neck. Using the floor, you can press your weight against the roller and bring it back and forth for a muscle massage. Many triathletes like to use the foam roller for the iliotibial (IT) band, running the roller on the floor along the outer thigh from the hip. Some experts also recommend a massage stick for rolling on calves, hamstrings and quadriceps.

We hope we've given you enough encouragement (or excuses) to include a proper massage routine in your triathlon training.


Lots More Information

Related Articles


  • Brownlee, Christen L. "The Magic (and Science) of Massage." Today's Chemist at Work, 2002. (Sept. 17, 2010)
  • Cassar, Mario-Paul. "Handbook of Clinical Massage." Elseviar Health Sciences, 2004. (Sept. 17, 2010)
  • English, Cliff. "Triathlon Training: Benefits of Massage." Triathlete. May 7, 2009. (Sept. 17, 2010)
  • Fitzgerald, Matt. "Triathlete Magazine's Complete Triathlon Book." Warner Books, 2003.
  • Guy, Richard "Sports Massage for Triathletes." (Sept. 17, 2010)
  • Holland, Tom. "The 12-Week Triathlete." Fair Winds, 2005. (Sept. 17, 2010)
  • King, Robert K. "Performance Massage." Human Kinetics, 1993. (Sept. 17, 2010)
  • McGillicuddy, Michael. "The Art and Science of Post-Event Massage." MassageToday. MPA Media. Sept., 2003. (Sept. 17, 2010)
  • Pike, Gregory. "Sports Massage for Peak Performance." HaperPerennial, 1997.