The Art and Science of Pre-Event Massage

By Michael McGillicuddy, LMT, NCTMB
May 29, 2009

The Art and Science of Pre-Event Massage

By Michael McGillicuddy, LMT, NCTMB
May 29, 2009

The term "pre-event massage" can be confusing even for sports-massage therapists. To some therapists, the application of pre-event sports massage can take place up to 48 hours before an event. I consider a pre-event massage one that takes place at the event just prior to the time an athlete is scheduled to compete.

Since the massage takes place on-site, a common question is whether the pre-event massage should happen before or after the athlete warms up. To answer the question, the therapist needs to understand the purpose of a warm-up. There are four important physiological effects of a warm-up: to increase the heart rate, respiratory rate and body temperature; and to prepare the body's nervous system for strenuous activity.

Obviously, a pre-event massage done after the warm-up would defeat its very purpose; you would not want the athlete's heart rate, respiratory rate and body temperature to drop while the massage is taking place.

Important Considerations of Pre-Event Massage

Ask the following questions when preparing to administer a pre-event massage:

  • What type of event is the athlete preparing to compete in? Does the start of the event require lighting-quick reaction? Events such as swimming and running can require instantaneous reaction. A pre-event massage administered too close to the start of an event that requires an athlete's instantaneous response can actually interfere with the start.
  • Does the event require the athlete to remain "loose" or relaxed before a competition, such as in boxing? A boxer who is tight at the beginning of a fight is much more likely to be knocked out, which is why you might see boxers receiving massage right up to the time they enter the ring.
  • Does the athlete's sport allow the use of oils or lotions during the pre-event massage? Can you use oil on a wrestler? You must understand the demands of the competition and rules of the sport in order to properly administer pre-event massage.

A pre-event massage should assist in warming up an athlete's body; increasing blood supply to the muscles; preparing the neuro-pathways; assisting with joint mobility; and leaving the athlete feeling great.

Therapists should ask themselves what techniques they have learned that will assist them in providing a functional pre-event massage. The techniques I use most often are: friction to help warm the body; compression to increase blood flow to targeted muscles; and range-of-motion to prepare neuro-pathways and assist with joint mobility.

Each pre-event massage may require the application of a specific technique to make the athlete comfortable before the competition. A pre-event sports massage does not always have to be a complete routine; for some athletes, it may be as simple as rubbing an ankle or stretching a hamstring.

Sometimes the greatest benefit of a pre-event massage is psychological. It is helpful if you know how an athlete prepares for competition. Many athletes get nervous before competing; some become very talkative, while others prefer to sit quietly or listen to music. Anything you can do to calm and reassure them is extremely important.

Remember, as a sports-massage therapist you may be the last person to have contact with the athlete before they compete: What you say and do can have a powerful effect on his or her performance.

I hope this information has been helpful, and that you enjoy being a part of the massage- therapy profession.

Take care,

Michael McGillicuddy, LMT, NCTMB