How Massage Helps Muscle Recovery

Massage – in one form or another - has been used by a variety of cultures globally for centuries. And, in that long history, it has developed quite the reputation for treating... well, just about everything.


Many of the purported benefits of massage, frankly, lack scientific evidence. Still, there are many more that do have a significant amount of research to back them up.


One of the most firmly upheld positive effects of massage is of particular interest to athletes and exercisers: improved muscle recovery. But, how does massage help with muscle recovery? What's really going on?


Why Recovery Matters 


To really understand how massage helps muscle recovery, it's important to first understand what exercise does to your muscles and why recovery matters.


Aerial view of gym equipment including dumbbells


When you exercise, especially in a new or challenging way, your muscles undergo damage in the form of microscopic tears to the fibers that make them up. In response, your brain begins a complex chain of events that rebuild and improve the affected muscles.


Rather than just fixing the damage, your body wants to make sure that your muscles are strong enough to be able to handle that same activity in the future without sustaining damage.


And this is how exercise makes us stronger and improves our athletic performance. Recovery, then, is vital your fitness progress.


How Massage Helps


While much of that muscle recovery process happens without our knowledge, there are a few physical effects of which we tend to be very aware. Namely, we're talking about that stiff, throbbing pain called Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) that sets in within 24 to 48 hours after a difficult workout.


Close up of a weight on a barbell


It's been known for a long time that massage can relieve certain types of pain, allow the exact mechanism for this relief has been pretty controversial. In fact, many experts have suggested that the reduction in pain is really just a response to feeling relaxed.


According to a 2012 study out of McMaster University, though, the pain reducing effects of massage go a lot deeper than that. The researchers found that massage helps muscle recovery through two different methods. First, massage reduces the production of a certain immune cell called cytokines which cause inflammation.


But massage also – more surprisingly – can increase the number of mitochondria found in your muscular cells. Known as the “powerhouse” of the cell, this organelle is responsible for energy production. Stimulating growth of new mitochondria, then, allows yours cells to produce more fuel to power the recovery work already underway.