When I recall the hours I spent stretching or enduring painful sport massages as an athlete, it's not a happy thought to consider it might all have been in vain.
But recent research questioning the benefits of post-workout massage and pre-workout stretching is putting these common athlete practices under scrutiny.
A Queen's University research team announced confidently last week that the massage after exercise 'myth' had been "busted" by its research team.
Research on 12 males performing two minutes of isometric handgrips found massaging the forearm immediately after exercise actually impaired blood flow to the muscle, rather than improving circulation.
"This dispels a common belief in the general public about the way in which massage is beneficial," said Kinesiology and Health Studies professor Michael Tschakovsky. "It also dispels that belief among some health professionals. I have spoken with a number of health professionals in private practice who, when asked what massage does, answer that it can increase muscle blood flow and helps get rid of lactic acid. Ours is the first study to challenge this and rigorously test its validity."
Lactic acid is a by product of muscle activity and is what causes the 'burn' during intense exercise.
The belief that massage aids in the removal of lactic acid from muscle tissue is listed on the Canadian Sports Massage Therapists website as one of the benefits of massage, but Tschakovsky said there is no scientific research to back this up. He worked with Kinesiology MSc candidate Vicky Wiltshire on the study.
Interesting as it is, their study does not reveal ways in which post-exercise massage might be beneficial even if only psychologically.
How else could we explain the vast anecdotal evidence from athletes?
"There's definitely a psychological component, and in an elite athlete, that's huge," said Johanna Thackwray, a registered massage therapist based in Guelph. "That can make or break an athlete."
Thackwray was on the Canadian Olympic Committee medical team at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. She's glad to see research being done on massage, but said it's difficult to account for the cumulative effects of massage, the uniqueness of each massage therapist, as well as the psychological effect.
"To me, it's just an indicator more research needs to be done," Thackwray said. "If there weren't benefits, we wouldn't be bringing massage therapists to the Olympics, and there's a lineup all the time for massage therapy."
Athletes have told her that after massage they felt better, slept better, and had more power and quickness.
Despite his findings, Tschakovsky still gets sports massages himself, because it seems to help. The study will be presented at the annual American College of Sports Medicine conference in Seattle, May 27 to 30.
"The bottom line here is, it's not a crazy thing to think that massage might enhance blood flow, but the reality is that nobody has considered that just by compressing the muscle, you're actually cutting off blood flow," he said.
"This study is not saying massage is bad for you. Just don't expect it to increase your blood flow and flush out lactic acid."
Stretching has also come under scrutiny. According to a University of Nevada Las Vegas study, pre-activity stretching may hinder performance in explosive sports such as track and football. The study is in the September 2008 issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
It found that two typical stretching techniques, static (holding) and ballistic (bouncing), for the hamstring and quadricep muscles reduced leg strength and power.
"Athletes typically include static stretching as a part of the warm-up, but the evidence is clear that this practice will decrease performance in sports that require explosive movements," said UNLV kinesiology professor and study co-author Bill Holcomb, who directs the university's Sports Injury Research Center. "Developing flexibility is important for reducing sports injury, but the time to stretch is after, not before, performance."
Holcomb suggests that coaches limit warm-up stretching and stop pre-activity stretching altogether in sports that require maximum power. Instead, athletes should perform a whole-body warm-up activity followed by sport-specific stretching.