That’s the Spot!
by Jennifer Warren
Few people know the power of massage like New York City-based massage therapist and runner Liz Hartshorn. A runner of over twenty years, Hartshorn was at her competitive peak in 1991, and, like many runners, pushed over that peak. “I compulsively ran three marathons within twelve months,” reflects Hartshorn. In the process she developed “a pulled sartorius (hip flexor) muscle which turned into sciatica within six months, and within eight months it was on both sides of my hips.” Hartshorn’s pain was so excruciating at one point, she notes, “I couldn’t even take a full stride without feeling like someone was trying to rip my hamstrings out of my body.”
It was at that moment that she finally listened to her body and stopped running. After a ten year layoff, Hartshorn is finally able to run pain-free. With the assistance of yoga, pilates, soul searching, and, most important, massage, she addressed her postural imbalances and is now back on the streets running. “The upshot was it got me to my first professional massage therapist,” she says. “Our work together began my slow road to recovery and as luck would have it, into my current profession as a massage therapist.”
The success story of Hartshorn’s does not stand alone. As serious athletes continue to seek out ways to enhance their training regimes, they are discovering both the physical and psychological benefits sports massage offers. Runners, in particular, are realizing the profound effect a good massage offers both the body and mind.
“When we train as runners, we are consistently stressing our bodies, and in particular the muscles that propel us forward, leading to a wear and tear on the body,” says Hartshorn, who has now worked as a massage therapist for nine years. “Not only do runners commonly have tight, sore muscles, but overuse injuries are very common due to all of the physical exertion involved.”
Benefits of Massage
The alleviation of tight, sore muscles is just the beginning of what a massage therapist can do for the serious runner. A good sports massage can warm and soften tissues, improve circulation of both blood and lymph fluid—flushing out toxins that cause muscle stiffness and soreness—realign muscle fibers, free muscle adhesions, identify tender areas before they develop into injuries, stretch and relax as well as restore suppleness and normal elasticity to muscles, improve range of motion, speed recovery from a tough workout or race, improve body awareness, and relax the mind and body.
David Walker of New York City, a massage therapist and active marathoner, offers testimony to the potency of massage. “I would recommend that any serious runner utilize regular massage not only before and after major runs, but as a regular part of their training and maintenance,” Walker says. “It helps recovery, and it also assists in relieving muscle spasms and tightness related to muscle adhesions.”
Heather Hayward, a massage therapist in Pacific Pallisades, CA whose present clientele is 30% runners, points out: “The major benefit from massage for serious runners is the stretching out of scar tissue. Minor tears in muscles or tendons can occur with overuse, and scar tissue comes in and mends the fibers, creating the problem of less flexibility in that area.”
Massage therapists are not the only people advocating massage these days, elite runners are as well. “I’ve been getting massage once a week since 1980,” says four-time Boston and New York City Marathon winner Bill Rodgers, who claims some of his best races have come after massage, “I think it is a wonderful preventive technique, providing both physical and psychological benefits to the runner; it’s truly something I wish a lot more runners would add to their training, so they could see what a positive difference it makes in their performances.”
Bob Glover, coach for the New York Road Runner’s Club, who has received massage once a week for several years, can specifically cite those positive differences alluded to by Rodgers. “I now see a marked improvement in my running,” Glover notes, “Especially with my hamstring tightness, as the deep tissue work really addresses that.” He continues, “To me, it should ideally be a part of the training regime, just like stretching and speedwork.”
How to Find a Therapist
So, you have finally taken the massage therapy plunge. As a dedicated runner, you now want to know how to find the best person possible to suit your needs—no easy task.
“Finding a qualified massage therapist is not that difficult,” says Walker. “However finding a talented massage therapist may take some perseverance. Many people who take required courses and licensing exams know the basics, but there are far fewer gifted therapists who can truly read the body, work with the muscles and tendons, and bring about the healing and recovery every runner would like to experience.”
Hayward says, “As an athlete myself, I prefer therapists who are athletic, because chances are they have had injuries themselves and know what good therapy feels like. But no matter how you cut it, finding a massage therapist is tough.”
Although a challenging process, you don’t have to search blindly. Among the resources available are referral services, offered by either a local massage school or national organizations for massage therapists, such as The American Massage Association (AMTA). Other referral avenues are the National Certification in Therapeutic Massage Service (NCTMB), Massage Bodywork Resource Center or the International Alliance of Healthcare Educators.
You may want to consider asking runner friends, coaches, personal trainers or even chiropractors who specialize in sports medicine for a recommendation. Additionally, a yoga studio may have good contacts, as their instructors are often massage therapists themselves. Finally, running clubs often have a massage therapist referral list.
Interviewing a Therapist
Once you have obtained the name and phone number of a prospective therapist, it’s time to initiate questions. To begin, you may want to inquire about their clientele: Does he work with runners? If not, what other type of athlete does he specialize in? Next, ask about the athletic background of the therapist: Is he a runner or an athlete? How about his training? Is the therapist familiar with techniques unique in sports massage? Is he a graduate of a training program accredited or approved by the Commission on Massage Therapy Accreditation (COMTA)?
If the therapist does work with runners, does she specialize in short or long distances or both? Finally, is the therapist familiar with typical runner’s injuries? During this “interviewing” phase you want to learn as much as possible about the therapist while seeing if her credentials and experiences mesh with your needs and desires.
Even after this initial vetting, Walker advises, “Try one therapist, and if you are not completely satisfied and comfortable with his/her approach, try another, until you find the one that stands out from the rest. There are plenty of bad therapists out there as well as good ones.”
Jennifer Warren has been a competitive runner for 20 years and a freelance writer for eight. She regularly receives sports massage.