What's Cool In Road Cycling

Toolbox: Massage Under A Microscope

One way cyclists can improve power and recovery is massage. Your body and your mind are a vast array of cause and effect channels that both limit and enable the production of power through the pedals. Now medical science takes this popular modality a bit deeper than lactic acid and the cloud of social politics.

By John Howard and Gina Poertner, CHES

A recent article in the LA Times on massage therapy introduced science into this hands-on mix and, not surprisingly, kicked out a few established views and documented why massage is so important to cycling performance. Most of us like massage for the simple reason that it makes us feel good, but let’s take it a bit further. Mark Tarnopolsky is a researcher and author of a new study just completed at one of the world’s foremost physical culture think tanks, McMaster University in Ontario, Canada.

For decades Tarnopolsky studied the cellular effects of exercise on athletic performance. In a largely self-funded study, Tarnopolsky and co-author Simon Melov performed muscle biopsies on both legs of healthy young men before and after hard exercise, and a third time after massaging one leg in each individual. There was no word in the Times article on what Tarnopolsky used as an incentive to motivate his victims, I mean subjects. Knowing the procedure it had to have been substantial or maybe not, since they used college kids.

As Tarnopolsky and his team began comparing those tissues samples from his subject’s massaged legs versus the tissue from the unmassaged leg, they found that the massaged leg had reduced exercise-induced inflammation by dampening activity of a protein referred to as NF-kb. Additionally, massage seemed to help cells recover by lifting another protein called PCG-1 alpha, which is responsible for producing new mitochondria, the small organelles inside each cell crucial for muscle energy generation. With the addition of other proteins, all contributed to muscle recovery from massage. This new evidence somewhat refutes the popular belief that massage eases pain by helping the body clear lactic acid concentrations. In fact, the team saw no effect of massage on lactic acid concentration.

The study first saw the light of day in the journal Science Translational Medicine. Here is the important part: The study is believed to be first work on a cellular level basis to document the true effects of massage on reducing inflammation and helping cells recover. “We knew there was something going on, but we couldn’t get to it a decade ago,” says Thomas Birk, associate professor of physical therapy at Wayne State University in Detroit who has studied the effects of massage on HIV patients.

From a cyclist’s perspective, this study confirmed what most of us thought we knew all along. With the documentation of the reduction of inflammation at McMaster, it is hoped that this study may pave the way for medical providers to approve massage as part of a viable health plan. This is the hope of UCLA alternative medicine expert Dr. Mary Hardy, “This kind of work should be useful in getting these therapies reimbursed.”

Although the MacMaster study may have advanced massage therapy a step closer to its rightful place in the hallowed halls of medical science, some therapists still operate under restrictive laws only a second cousin away from the infamous 17th century Puritanical Blue Laws. A massage therapist for the past twelve years, Lana Atchley, is also a Category 1 cyclist who knows this first-hand. Atchley points out that when she first applied for a massage license, “As a therapist, you had to register with the police department and get fingerprinted.” Upon acquiring their necessary license, massage therapists were generally regarded by authorities as “legal” prostitutes. After 2009 all of that changed, at least in California. “I feel that creating a blanket National Massage License for all practitioners creates an equal playing field of legitimizing our profession by weeding out the “spa” parlors, not the therapists in the field. I think creating professionalism is a first step in assisting other professionals to respect our work,” says Atchley.

The nationwide License may be the goal of California Massage Therapy Council (CAMTC) who, in 2009, was instrumental in helping pass a Senate bill that helped pave the way to certifying qualified massage professionals. It also helped in validating the science.

Janice Clute, a personal trainer and massage therapist in Southwest Missouri, has worked for sixteen years having endured the old school licensing process. Clute has taken her cue from the medical community. She reads MRI reports as a regular part of her practicing protocol. Nearly all of her clients are amateur and professional athletes referenced through the local medical community, a refreshing trend that we can hope will spread.

My plan, faithful readers, is to mix a few different modalities beginning with a more informative look at different therapies, other powerful deep tissue practices such as Dynamic Motion Therapy™ which is part of the BodyFiTTE™ family of techniques. For those modalities that we feel warrant review, on the basis of their track record with active cyclists and multi-sport athletes, we will connect the dots to our favorite sport. Welcome, let’s make this physical!

Brown, E. (2012, February 1). Study Works Out Kinks in Understanding Massage. Los Angeles Times. https://articles.latimes.com/2012/feb/01/health/la-he-massage-20120202

Lana Acthley, February 14, 2012.
Janice Clute, February 16, 2012.

About John:
John Howard is one of the pioneers and true legends of American bike racing, with palmares including: 3-time Olympian, Ironman world champion, bicycle landspeed record, USA Cycling Hall of Fame, and elite and masters national champion. John is also an active cycling coach and the author of Mastering Cycling. Check out more information about John and his coaching at www.fittesystem.com and www.johnhowardsports.com.

About Gina:
Gina Poertner, CHES is the owner of Life Balance Sports, focusing on cycling, triathlon, and running. She is also a FiTTE System Practitioner and Instructor for John Howard Performance Sports and specializes in bicycle fitting and positioning. Find out more about Gina and her coaching at www.lifebalancesports.com.

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