Massage over medicine

Trending: treatments that focus on performance, rather than regen.

Meds often treat symptoms of fitness-related pain or soreness instead of solving the real cause, says Matt Delaney, CSCS, New York City-based national manager of innovation at Equinox. That’s one of the main reasons people are increasingly seeking proactive, drug-free alternatives to ease current aches and prevent future ones.

“People are beginning to understand that managing pain with medication leads to temporary, short-term relief,” Delaney says. “You’ll experience much better results if you address the underlying issues like repetitive postures, limited range of motion, and soft tissue restrictions.”

Sarah Dunne, manager and master therapist at The Spa at Equinox West 92nd Street in New York City, has noticed more people turning to performance massages in particular, to ease pain and prevent injury. This personalized treatment reduces tension and tightness, breaks down scar tissue, and mobilizes trigger points of pain.

As performance massages gain popularity, here’s everything you need to know about the practice and how it can complement your routine.

Who should get a performance massage?
Almost anyone who’s active can benefit. They’re especially useful for fit bodies that train in the same plane of motion (think: runners or cyclists) or those who play sports that engage one side of the body more than the other, like golf.

How are they different from other massages?
Regenerative massages focus more on relaxation and stress relief, Dunne says, while performance-focused ones offer deeper, more corrective services. They’re better at relieving pain and tension, improving circulation, increasing range of motion, and preventing injury.

The goal isn’t to address the entire body, but rather to focus on areas that may be hurting your performance because of a lack of mobility or low tissue quality, says Delaney. For example, maybe you’re not able to perform a full squat because of a lack of hip and ankle mobility. These sessions can also treat existing issues like rotator cuff syndrome, tennis elbow, muscle sprains, and strains, says TK Murray, spa manager at Equinox Sports Club New York.

Plus, they address movement pattern dysfunctions before they can cause problems. When you experience pain during a particular movement, your body may compensate, creating issues in other areas. Say, for example, you have a weak left ankle from a long-ago injury that you compensate for during squats, leading to a tight right hip. Movement pattern dysfunctions also result from bad habits like shrugging at the top of a deadlift. Performance massages can correct them.

What are the treatment options?
Performance massages are totally customizable, and some spas even offer treatments designed for specific sports like marathons, martial arts, and more.

At The Spa at Equinox, members can choose from a 25-, 50-, or 80-minute massage. Short sessions are ideal for people who need spot treatments, like if you have a stiff neck in the morning or tight calves after a long run.

Dunne usually recommends longer massages: In those lasting 50 minutes, you can expect a full-body treatment that focuses on one or two areas where you’re experiencing pain, discomfort, or tightness. If you opt for 80 minutes or longer, the therapist can use the time to adequately warm up the tissue and target more accessory muscles, which could be causing your issues on the sly.

What should you expect?
Treatment sometimes starts the second you spot your therapist: Dunne typically analyzes her clients’ posture as she greets them, notes any imbalances, and tries to identify which muscles might be at the root of the problem.

Most therapists will start by working along the spine, neck, and shoulders, mirroring each side of the body with long, slow strokes to relieve muscular tension.

After that, they’ll move on to targeted treatment. If someone comes in complaining of tight calves, Dunne says she’d start by warming the tissue, then lengthen, spread, and stretch the muscle fibers and fascia. She might even do manual treatment in the ankles and knees to manipulate the muscles at their attachment sites.

When the session concludes, good therapists will suggest stretches or exercises for you to do on your own.

When, and how often, do you need to schedule one?
Going weekly is best if you have existing pain, Murray says, while once a month is adequate if you just want to maintain soft tissue health.

The most important aspect is what he calls homework: the activities, stretches, or changes in posture that can help prolong the session’s benefits. “If a client keeps up with their homework, this will change the frequency between sessions or change the action plan the therapist sets up for each treatment,” he explains.

Can performance massages replace meds completely?
Not always. In some cases, they can be used in combination with other fixes prescribed by your MD. Still, you should consider massage for almost all musculoskeletal conditions like tendinopathy, back pain, postural issues, movement problems, and more, Delaney says. (Consult with your doctor to understand your options.)

“Most people want to improve their lives not by popping a pill but by managing their ailments in proactive ways,” says Murray. Performance massages are a great place to start.

Photo: Getty Images