What therapists are after is creating myofascial release to help you move better—myo refers to muscles and fascial refers to the continuous elastic sheet of connective tissue, or fascia, that covers them.
"Think of fascia like a piece of shrink wrap surrounding your muscles and providing structural support," says Nina Cherie Franklin, Ph.D., an exercise scientist and a licensed massage therapist in Atlanta. But things like sitting all day, repetitive motions, and even stress can cause it to get tight. "Loosening the fascia lets the therapist help the muscle return to its normal resting length and open the muscle for movement," says Mary E. Cody, a master licensed massage therapist at Grae Therapy in New York City.
All that might sound a little intense, but the science behind massage can translate to serious gains in your workouts. Here, four reasons you should consider it.
Boost Your Circulation— Oxygenated blood is your muscles' power supply, and new research suggests that massage can help those fuel lines work better. In a study at the University of Illinois at Chicago, a single 30-minute lower-body massage performed after a leg workout enhanced blood vessel dilation in exercisers for 48 hours. "Blood vessels that function properly are flexible and have the ability to dilate, or widen, on demand when muscle and other tissues are in need of more oxygen and nutrient-rich blood during and after exercise," says Franklin, the primary study author. Her findings suggest massage may stimulate those vessels to be at the top of their game so your muscles get max juice just when they need it.
Feel Less Sore— Not only do post-workout massages pump blood more efficiently, but people who received them reported nearly half the soreness level compared with those who didn't get a rubdown, Franklin's research found. After a tough workout, there's an inflammatory response in the muscles you just used—your body speeds blood to patch microtears in those muscle fibers—accompanied by oxidative stress. Too much stress, and your muscles can't fire as fast, as long, or as forcefully the next day or two. But massage may dampen the stress effect by lessening the severity of the inflammatory response, she says, ultimately reducing the delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) you typically feel.
Rev Up Your Endurance— There's evidence that massage may even spark your muscle cells to go into overdrive: Researchers at McMaster University in Ontario saw an uptick in the signaling for mitochondria—the powerhouse of your cells—after just one massage. How? "When the proteins involved in sensing the intercellular environment of muscles are altered—most likely from the pressure of a massage—this actually alters your gene expression, temporarily increasing the signal for new mitochondrial growth," says study author Mark Tarnopolsky, M.D., Ph.D. That's key, since mitochondria help turn fuel into energy, and the more you have, the greater your endurance capacity. Getting regular massages could potentially change the capacity of your muscles, says Dr. Tarnopolsky.
Move More Freely— Anyone who's experienced tight hamstrings knows that some exercises can be difficult when your movement is restricted. That's a sign that the fascia sheath is not allowing for a full range of motion in the hamstring, says Cody. By releasing the tight or restricted areas, she says, you'll improve your flexibility and mobility. That, in turn, might allow you to run with less effort, lift weights with more control, or just exercise a little longer.