Knead for Speed

Massage keeps your body in better condition, prevents injuries, and restores mobility to injured muscle tissue. Physio Chris Ball explains the mysteries of massage and we show you how to do it yourself…

On massage

To understand the benefits of massage, it helps to know how it works. A tight muscle will squeeze blood out like a sponge, depriving the tissues of vital nutrients and energy to repair. The stroking movements of massage create a vacuum, which sucks fluid through blood vessels and lymph vessels and gets your blood pumping properly again. Deep massage causes the pores in tissue membranes to open and increases tissue permeability, again enabling fluid to circulate. This helps remove waste products such as lactic acid and encourages the take up of oxygen and nutrients to help them recover quicker.

Bundles of muscle fibres are stretched lengthways as well as sideways, and massage can also stretch the sheath or fascia that surrounds the muscle. Hard training can make tissues hard and inelastic, but massage helps reverse this by stretching the tissues. Similarly, massage can help break down scar tissues which can affect muscle efficiency and lead to inflexible tissues that are prone to injury and pain.

As well as having physical effects, massage can also help you feel less anxious. Tension and waste products in muscles can often cause pain, and massage helps reduce this in many ways, including by releasing the body’s endorphins. Muscles relax through warming up, circulation and stretching, but in addition mechanoreceptors, which sense touch, pressure, tissue length and warmth, are stimulated during massage and cause a reflex relaxation.

Pressing times

A cyclist’s need for massage can be broken down into three phases:

  • Maintenance: Massage helps keep you tuned up and prepared for your next race or hard workout. By helping to maintain proper fibre, tendon and ligament function, massage further speeds post-ride recovery. Done regularly, it allows you to rest more comfortably as well as train sooner with less pain and fatigue, which leads to greater flexibility, increased strength and fewer injuries.
  • Pre-race: The goal of a pre-race massage is to warm the muscles using techniques such as cross-fibre friction, vigorous effleurage and petrissage, and should be done using superficial, vigorous, rapid strokes to stimulate the nerves and muscles. Pre-race massage should not be slow or deep – make it fast and you’ll go fast!
  • Post-race: Generally, a post-race massage returns muscles to a relaxed state after a short competition in a relatively short time. It also helps you to return to your next ride fresh and strong by flushing out waste products and stimulating fresh blood flow to the muscles. This helps prevent a delayed onset of soreness, undue fatigue and even insomnia. Post-race massage involves slower and deeper strokes.

While a recreational-level cyclist might do fine with one massage session every other week, pros and sport level riders may need a deep tissue massage two days before a race, after the event, and once a week for maintenance. Deep tissue massage should be performed before a day off or before a day of easy spinning.

Self-massage techniques

You’re unlikely to give yourself as good a sports massage as a professional therapist. But incorporate these techniques into your weekly training or riding plan and you can still enjoy huge recovery benefits.

1. Hands

Apart from when you’re braking and changing gear, your hands are where road vibration from the front of the bike and your upper body weight meet, and they can become stiff and sore after long miles.

Technique: Interlock the fingers of both hands leaving the thumbs free, and then apply gentle but firm pressure with the massaging hand’s thumb to the sore areas of the palm, with both pressing and stroking movements.

2. Legs

Your legs do most of the muscle work in cycling, and will be crying out for a massage after a long ride.

Quadricep technique: Sitting on the ground with your leg out in front, shake, squeeze and knead the muscle with both hands. Use your thumbs and fingers to apply cross-fibre strokes along the length of the muscle. Then push gently down into the muscle with both thumbs together and massage down towards the knee. Go back to the top of the thigh with the thumbs and rotate them outwards across the top of the muscle, squeezing down into it, again moving down towards the knee, repeating the movement as you go.

Hamstring technique: Sit up against a wall with one knee raised and your foot flat on the ground in front. Using both hands, shake, squeeze and knead the length of the hamstring muscle. Lie on your back and press your fingertips into the muscle so the backs of the fingers of one hand are in contact with the backs of the other. Work your way up towards your backside.

Calf technique: Sit on the ground with one foot in front and out to the side so the lower leg is at an angle of about 45 degrees to the floor. Using both hands, shake and knead your calf muscle. Then combine effleurage and cross-fibre strokes with your thumbs up and down the muscle.

3. Feet

Given the constant pressure of pedalling mile after mile, often without much variation in position or direction of pressure, cyclists’ feet are a common cause of discomfort.

Technique: Sit down and put one foot on the opposite thigh. Using your fingers and thumbs, massage up and down the sole of your foot with a squeezing motion, concentrating on the arch.

4. Neck, shoulders and back

With its hunched-over, head-up position, it’s no surprise that cycling can give you a stiff neck, shoulders and back.

Neck technique: Reach backwards with one arm, and press your fingers firmly into the trapezius muscle, from the base of your skull to your shoulder. Further the move by tilting your head to the other side while dragging your hand towards the point of the shoulder.

Shoulder technique: This time, use the opposite hand to the side you’re massaging. Reach backwards and press down on the muscle, rocking back and forth to massage it.

Lower back technique Lie on the ground with your knees in the air and your pelvis slightly raised, with your feet and shoulders supporting most of your weight. Put a tennis ball under your back and roll your body gently over it, resting as much weight on the ball as is comfortable. This technique works equally well for massaging your buttocks.

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