Benefits of Massage for Runners

When considering additional things that can assist with your training and running performance, massage is often at the top of the list. Many runners who incorporate massage into their training tend to feel that it helps them, despite the lack of consistent scientific evidence about the exact benefits of massage (although research doesn’t quite mimic the real life scenarios of when and how massage is used). As a result, most of what is shared about the benefits of massage as it relates to running performance stems from anecdotal evidence.  

Being both a runner and massage therapist, I have seen the physical and mental benefits of massage with my own running. I also have some suggestions regarding the timing of massage, how to find a good massage therapist and some alternatives to massage that might be helpful to your running. 

Physical Benefits of Massage

The physical benefits I have felt from regular massage have included the following:

  • Nipping potential injuries in the bud before they become a serious problem. Many times I go into a massage focused on one or two things (or 10-20!) that feel tight and in need of some massage love. Once on the table, however, I become aware of something I had no idea was tight or sore until the therapist starts working on it. It makes me realize that if I never get worked on, I may miss out on little things that are creeping up and could potentially become full-blown injuries if they had not been addressed. I also often see this with clients I work on. I feel something that needs to be addressed (for example, a knot in their quad) and it catches the client by surprise. They’ll say something like, “I had no idea I was THAT tight there until you started digging into it”.
  • Keeping muscles feeling loose(r) and an improved range of motion. When I get a good sports and deep tissue massage, I often leave feeling much looser in some of my problem areas (e.g., calves, glutes, pecs). That is because in addition to the therapist working through my tight muscles, he/she will also incorporate passive stretching (where the therapist does the movement without assistance by the client) of those muscles.  
  • Better workouts. After a good massage, I feel better going into the next round of workouts and training runs and I am able to string together consistent stretches of healthy running as a result. This also has a mental benefit as I feel more confident when I have more consistent, healthy training, which leads into the mental benefits of massage.

Mental Benefits of Massage

Having everything worked out prior to a competition or a big workout can give you confidence that you are prepared to run well.

  • Confidence that I am injury free. The feeling of being loose and stretched out gives me confidence that there are no underlying injuries lurking about that might creep up during a race.
  • Relaxation! Another mental benefit can be from the act of just being able to take 30-60 minutes to chill. When you get a massage, you have at least a half hour where you are laying on the table and letting someone else do the work. This gives you time to turn your brain off and relax (well, as much as you can relax when getting a deep tissue/sports massage). I often look forward to my own massages just so I can have an hour to quiet my mind and lay down. Everyone can use a little bit of time to turn their brain off every now and then.

Timing of Massage

During training, I find getting a massage once every 2-3 weeks helps to work out the cumulative fatigue of training (and cumulative junky feeling in the legs). This also gives me something to look forward to every few weeks after hard workouts and longs runs (or even races).

If you get a massage close to a race and awareness is brought to an issue you otherwise hadn’t noticed, you might start to worry that it will sneak up on you during the race (I have seen this before with other runners). If that is the case, then the timing of the massage will be extra important (i.e. giving it a few extra days between the massage and the goal race itself). When planning a massage before a competition, 3-7 days out works for me. I would not get one (at least a deep tissue one) the day before. There is potential for what I call massage hangover (feeling beat up or sluggish from the work) and you want to have a few easy days to work that out beforehand. The sweet spot of when to get a massage right before a big race can be a bit individual when you take into account physical and mental components, so you may need some experimenting to see what works best for you.

If you are unsure, a good amount of time to start with would be 4-5 days out so that you have a few days of easy running to shake off any leftover feelings of flatness that may linger from the massage. If the only time you can work in a pre-competition massage is the day before, I would suggest only light work and would recommend that you go for an easy walk or jog (5-10 minutes) to help flush out the sluggishness you may feel from the work. For most of my past few goal races, I have gotten my pre-competition massage 3-4 days before, depending on my own work schedule and when my therapist can get me in. I tend to schedule it after my last pre-race workout, but with enough easy days before the race to run off any feelings of “blehhh” that I tend to experience when I have gotten worked on. By race day my legs feel light and peppy and ready to run fast.

Finding a Good Massage Therapist

If you don’t have a regular massage therapist, search by word of mouth and ask other runners and athletes. Someone can advertise that they do sports or deep tissue, for example, but they may not actually do that or they aren’t very experienced in it. It’s better to ask around to get a sense of who the therapists are that work with runners and will be familiar with the type of work you need. Employing that method of searching for a therapist has always panned out well for me. It’s also how I end up with a lot of my athletic clients. Runners refer other runners, college sports teams refer other college teams, etc.

Alternatives to Massage

Obviously, there are times when getting a massage with regular frequency is not feasible due to financial constraints or due to work/life scheduling issues. Whenever I have gone longer than I’d like between seeing my massage therapist, I at least make an effort to keep on top of things myself as best as I can. Below are a few of the things I use and the areas that I use them for: 

  • Foam roller – for long, broad areas like my quads, hamstrings and IT bands.
  • Massage stick – for rolling out areas that are a bit too small for the foam roller, like my anterior shins and calves.
  • Theracane – for doing trigger point work in my hips and back (caution: when using any of the trigger point tools out there meant to be used for self massage work, be sure to read the instructions on how to safely use them and if you are unsure, check with a licensed massage therapist or any sports med professional experienced in this area).
  • Lacrosse ball – to roll out my small hip rotator muscles like glute medius, glute mininmus, and TFL. I also like to use a lacrosse ball to roll out my arches. A tennis ball is also good for these areas, but I prefer a lacrosse ball since it is a little firmer.

Whether seeing a professional on a regular basis or routinely incorporating self-massage into your weekly routine, massage is definitely something to consider when looking at ways to enhance your running performance.

Do you get regular massages? What benefits have you experienced?

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  1. Bakar, Y., Coknaz, H., Karli, U., Semsek, O., Serin, E., Osman Pala, O. Effect of manual lymph drainage on removal of blood lactate after submaximal exercise. J.Phys.Ther. Sci. 2015; 27:3387-3391.
  2. Martin, N.A., Zoeller, R.F., Robertson, R.J., Lephart, S.M. The Comparative Effects of Sports Massage, Active Recovery, and Rest in Promoting Blood Lactate Clearance After Supramaximal Leg Exercise. Journal of Athletic Training 1998; 33:30-35.
  3. Hemmings, B., Smith, M., Graydon, J., Dyson, R. Effects of massage on physiological restoration, perceived recovery, and repeated sports performance. Br J Sports Med 2000; 34:109-115.
  4. Mancinelli, C.A., Davis, D.S., Aboulhosn, L., Brady, M., Eisenhofer, J., Foutty, S. The effects of massage on delayed onset muscle soreness and physical performance in female collegiate athletes. Physical Therapy in Sport, 2006; 7:5-13.

I'm a licensed massage therapist with a background in biochemistry and also a mother of two. After almost two years of focusing on shorter race distances, I am back on the marathon training horse. My next goal race is the Bank of America Chicago Marathon. I write mostly about health and science as they relate to running as well as being part of a running family.

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  1. What is the best time to get a post-race massage? I have gotten them the day after before and everything has been too tender.

    1. I typically like waiting about a week to get a post-race massage, especially if it’s after a marathon (I can get away with going 3-4 days after shorter races like a 5k or 10k). With the marathon, everything is very tender for several days and I like waiting for some of that to calm down before getting it worked on. It also allows me a few days to assess where the real problem areas might be once the superficial stuff calms down.

      1. I’ve always wondered about this when races offer free postrace massages. It sounds like it should be a good idea, yet…also not like a good idea!