Why massage timing matters

Whether it’s a pre-race tune-up or a post-race recovery session, here’s how to harness the power of bodywork.

There’s more to training for a marathon (or any other event) than just logging the miles and eating the right foods. Keeping your body healthy and primed throughout that process—during which you’re putting a lot of wear and tear on your muscles and joints—is just as important. While at-home remedies like foam rolling and recovery yoga can help, nothing is more effective than massage at maintaining healthy muscles, building full range of motion, and ensuring you’re ready to run your best come race day, says Matt Berenc, director of education at the Equinox Fitness Training Institute. “The massage therapist is able to be more specific with the treatment and adjust to the unique needs of the individual,” he explains. In other words, when it comes to training for endurance events, massage is more than just a feel-good luxury.

We talked to the experts—massage therapists who focus on prepping athletes for high performance—about when, how, and why to use bodywork. While they recommend making it a built-in part of your overall training plan (ideally once every week or every other week starting as soon as you sign up for a race), they also assured us that you will see benefits on race day if you get a little tune-up before you toe the start line, and that your body will thank you for a recovery massage once you cross the finish.

A Week Out

Schedule a session with a therapist who is experienced in sports massage, says Danielle Decker, spa coordinator at Equinox 44th St. “This session should aim to fix any imbalances that have arisen as a result of training. You’re looking to loosen up your joints and increase blood flow to promote healthy tissue and eliminate any lingering muscle fatigue,” she says. After a 60-minute session, you should feel worked, but not wrecked. “You have manipulated tissue, so you’re going to feel something,” Decker says. “You should feel a littlebit sore.”

Decker recommends requesting multiple techniques such as heat to start, light triggerpoint therapy, and ice towards the end to decrease inflammation. By restoring blood flow into tight muscles, a massage with this mix mobilizes tissues stiff from training and restores flexibility that’s key for optimal performance. Since you’re ratcheting down your mileage in the weeks just before a race, you won’t risk loading your muscles with more stress after your session, allowing you to start the race as close to fully recovered as possible.

Immediately Post-Race

It may be worthwhile to make a pitstop at the massage tent at the finish line. “You’re beat up and dehydrated, so this is an opportunity for you to catch your breath, drink some fluids, and get that cramping out of your body,” says Rosenellie Bayron, spa manager at Equinox Greenwich Ave. A recent study demonstrated that a massage of only seven minutes will induce an immediate, temporary reduction in muscle stiffness, proving that a little goes a long way.

Three to Four Days Later

Book a full-blown recovery massage. “Most of my clients are in pretty rough shape after a grueling event like this, so I try to figure out the part of the body that was affected most, and start my recovery work there,” says Jason Peters, Equinox corporate spa area manager for New York City. During a race of marathon-length or longer, your muscles contract due to prolonged tension, your tissue takes a beating, and major muscle groups will be left with a huge number of micro-tears that cause swelling. “I like to take anywhere from 80 to 110 minutes with a client a few days after a race to recreate length in the muscles,” Peters says. “Just a little bit of manipulation will eliminate the toxins contributing to pain, restore range of motion, and improve the muscle tone so that your body can begin to recover again.”