The link between massage and sports performance and recovery goes back to the time of ancient Greece. Sports massage has been used to treat pain, soreness, and stiffness associated with athletic injury and training, as well as for injury prevention. It is believed to potentially increase blood flow to the muscles, decrease swelling, reduce muscle tension, and increase a sense of well-being. Studies have shown that massage can reduce lactate levels in muscle, diminish delayed onset muscle soreness, and improve muscle function in certain settings.
That said, deep tissue massage is certainly not for everyone the week before the marathon. It may have been helpful for your friend if she had been getting massages regularly during her training. For her, a deep tissue massage up to four days before the race would be fine, allowing muscles the necessary time to recover. This would ideally be from the therapist who had been treating her all along.
However, if routine massage treatments have not been a part of your regular training regimen, it is not advisable to schedule any deep tissue work this close to the big day. You are not familiar with how your body would respond, and it may adversely affect your taper. In general, it is a good rule not to try anything new in the last week leading up to a marathon.
If you do schedule a massage within a week or two of the race, make sure to keep it very light—a relaxation therapeutic massage may be appropriate. This would primarily serve as a psychological benefit to ease tension and stress, but don’t expect it to fix any injuries or muscle imbalances at that point. Studies have shown that pre-race massage doesn’t necessarily improve muscle strength, flexibility, or endurance, but it can contribute to a positive mental outlook as race day approaches.
Before scheduling, seek out a licensed massage therapist with experience treating runners. You can search for practices specializing in sports, clinical, or rehabilitation massage. Also, let the therapist know that you are running the marathon on Sunday.
Dr. Paul Cooke is a physiatrist and member of the Spine Care Institute at Hospital for Special Surgery. He specializes in the non-operative care of spine and sports injuries and has practice locations in New York City and in Princeton, NJ. He treats individuals at different levels of fitness and enjoys helping patients return to their sport or get started with a regular exercise program. Dr. Cooke has run a marathon as well as several half-marathons. He enjoys running, cross-training, and coaching youth sports.