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Knowledge Level: Intermediate

During Grand Tours and hard training blocks, massage is a key and traditional part of the daily routine of top cyclists. Although an accepted aid to recovery and performance, the scientific evidence for its effectiveness is far from conclusive. Great Britain Cycling Team lead physiotherapist, Phil Burt, gives us his take on the massage conundrum and advises whether it should be part of your cycling regime.

Is massage part of the Great Britain Cycling Team approach?

Yes it is but in different ways. With road riders in general, the post-ride “flushing out” of the legs is part of the culture and the riders expect it. There is certainly not a lot of hard scientific evidence to back its effectiveness in aiding recovery, and it definitely does not rid the legs of lactic acid as is often claimed. Riders do like it, they report benefits and it is part of their post-race or ride recovery and relaxation routine. It is important not to underestimate these slightly intangible and psychological benefits, as they really can make a difference to a rider’s attitude and how they perform.

With the Great Britain track riders, it’s not so much massage as soft tissue therapy. This targets specific muscle groups, which their intense gym and track sessions can cause to lose functionality. It can be viewed as “pre-hab” which allows them to keep training and it is certainly very different and more aggressive than a post-event rub down.

Is massage always beneficial?

No. There is a reasonable amount of evidence that massage immediately before an activity can reduce the amount of power that an athlete can produce. In the “golden hour” between team pursuit heats, unlike many teams, we don’t give the riders a “flushing out” rub down. Compared to their nutrition, cool-down and subsequent warm-up routine, it is way down the order in terms of recovery techniques, of questionable physiological benefits and may even have a negative impact on their performance in the next round.

Also some of the more aggressive soft tissue therapy techniques are quite painful, as they can result in bruising and are fairly draining, are definitely not recommended in the lead up to an event.

Are there different types of massage?

Yes. As we have already discussed, they range from gentle recovery rub downs to aggressive soft tissue and fascial therapy using metal Graston tools and foam rollers. What is appropriate boils down to the training the rider has been doing and their personal preference. Hard gym sessions or being locked in the same position for hours on a road bike can both require extensive soft tissue work to keep the rider healthy and functional. For Sir Chris Hoy, regular and really hard massage was a key component of his training. Sessions with him were a real workout for me. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Shanaze Reade liked the relaxation of really gentle massage and that was equally important to her.

Why is it so difficult to scientifically prove the benefits of massage?

Every rider is different, every treatment is different and how do you perform a non-massage as an experimental control? Also, if you are working with elite athletes, they are not going to want you making possibly negative interventions into their routines. Working from sound scientific principles is important but you have also got to listen to athlete feedback and trust your own depth of experience. For example, there are many people who will debate the benefits of using a foam roller and, from a strict scientific proof viewpoint, they are right. However, having worked with hundreds of athletes, I can say categorically that it is beneficial to some, it is just that we do not understand the process why, and the same applies to massage.

Would you recommend amateur riders to have regular massages?

Again, it comes down to personal preference and what works for you. A regular, say monthly, appointment with an experienced soft tissue therapist can be useful as a body MOT and can help identify areas of tightness or concern. Also, do not underestimate the psychological aspect either. If a massage helps you to feel good, increases your motivation to train or you feel that it improves your performance, do it. That said, not everyone needs or will benefit from it, so don’t feel that you can not be a successful cyclist if you don’t have massages.

What can riders do to fill in the gaps between massages?

Make sure that you optimise your post-ride recovery routine and almost all riders will benefit from regular mobilisation work.  This is not to make them a super flexible gymnast, but to regulate the negative effects of what cycling, desk-work or hours behind the wheel may impose on the body. An easy recovery intervention that some riders find beneficial is contrast therapy, where you alternate cold and hot water and this is easy to do in the shower post-ride.

Are there any qualifications/titles you’d look for in a massage therapist and any you would avoid?

This is a tricky area as the whole industry is a bit unregulated. Obviously a qualified physiotherapist who has experience of working with cyclists is the ideal, but this could prove very expensive. There are massage therapists with long lists of qualifications, and others, equally as good without much formal training. Try to go on personal recommendation, speak to your club-mates and you may have to try a few out before you find one who is right for you. The SMA is the largest regulatory body overseeing massage.

As cyclists are there any key areas that a massage therapist should be focussing on?

The lower body is obviously important, especially the rectus femoris, hip flexors and glutes. However, don’t neglect your lower back, neck and shoulders as these can really suffer from long hours on the bike in combination with a desk job.

Do shaved legs make massage more effective?

I believe cyclists shave their legs primarily to make treating road rash easier and, if they are being honest, because it is a culture thing. However, during a massage, tugging at hairs can lead to the follicles becoming infected, a condition known as folliculitis. Being freshly shaven can help prevent this but being clean and not sweaty beforehand is far more important.