by O. Bouimer, LMT

I recently presented a Russian Sports Massage continuing education class during the FSMTA Convention. After receiving so many inspiring and heartfelt testimonials from the practitioners who participated in the class I decided to reflect one more time on the subject of science of sports massage and the progress made in this field in the U.S. today.

In fact, is there a progress? Definitely “yes”, if we look at the increased numbers of sports massage practitioners in general and those working with professional sports teams, in particular. Thus, its popularity is up! It is refreshing to see massage practitioners filled with enthusiasm while setting up their stations at the numerous race events across the country. However, the question remains: Is there an adequate training in place, – to equip massage practitioners with both knowledge and skills needed to help athletes, both professionals and amateurs, to perform better in their sports. My argument is – it is not enough to show up at a sport event with a massage table, to be considered a sports massage therapist!

Therefore, getting back to answering the question about the progress made, we might choose “maybe”, when it comes down to the quality of sports massage education here in the U.S. (Naturally, we could make an assumption that some sports massage programs are better than others.)

In contrast, – based on my personal experience as a student of sports massage in the former Soviet Union over two decades ago, there is a unique system of sports massage that has been scientifically developed and clinically proven. That fact itself has made my job as an instructor of sports massage a very easy and rewarding one, because I present a proven system, the system that works every time it is applied! I only wish for that system to be both embraced and enjoyed by the sports massage schools and practitioners across the country, which would, in turn, lead to creating a highly recognized and respected community of sports massage experts united by that system!

So far, we still see articles, like the one published in the American Journal of Sport Medicine in September, 2004, (Jonhagen S., et a., 2004) stating that “Post-Event Sports Massage has no positive therapeutic impact on post-workout recovery in athletes”. For unknown reason The New York Times later had re-printed that article and it gave impression to the public, medical and sports community that sports massage is waste of time and money. Imagine for a second how many potential clients the sports massage practitioners lost overnight after the New York Times published its article.

Much more sadly there was no official response to that nonsense from the massage community. Where were leading massage therapy organizations or associations, educators who travel around the country with the sports massage seminars, etc.? I and my colleagues were surprised that no one had the courage to confront such nonsense. We wrote the review of the article and pointed out the inconsistencies and flaws in the design of the study protocol. However our lonely voice wasn’t supported by anyone in the sports massage industry. We were deeply puzzled by this fact. Later I understood why.

The following year I observed the panel of sports massage experts who discussed the issue of sports massage. What struck me the most was the complete absence of scientific data in their presentations. Each expert relied on his or her personal experience only. Even more disappointing was what several speakers recommended to the practitioners who was able to get to work with the professional sports teams. Are you ready? Here it is: “If you will get lucky enough to work with a professional sports team, remember -You are NOBODY! So, keep your mouth shut and keep your opinions and suggestions to yourself! As far as massage strokes, – stick with effleurage, as a main technique.”

Wow! I can hardly wait! Where can I sign up to become a sports massage therapist, so that I could feel like nobody? What a future to look forward to! I was shocked even more when I had looked around that room, filled with over a hundred practitioners, and saw not a single blink at that statement! Clearly, something was really wrong with that picture.

For us, sports massage practitioners, to get the respect we deserve, we need to start with respecting ourselves first, while proudly offering our scientifically developed and historically proven services to any professional sports team, which should feel like a lucky winner by retaining our services!

As an athlete and later sports massage practitioner and teacher I have a completely different experience. I was educated and still practice sports massage in the environment when my words (as well as words of my colleagues) have great practical value for the coach, athlete or team’s physician. My work as well as the work of my colleagues and students is respected so much because it is empowered by the scientific system of Russian Sports Massage.

Russian Sports Massage is the most advanced system of sports massage in the world. It was regarded as an integrative part of sports training and competition in the former Soviet Union. Massage therapists were highly respected, sharing the spotlight with athletes and coaches. When an athlete would bring home a gold Olympic medal, he or she would get a medal of honor and recognition from the Soviet Government. However, his or her massage therapist would get official recognition from the Government as well as a part of the team who helped the athlete to win the Olympic competition.

Essentially, massage therapy was used as a ‘secret weapon’ at the time of the Cold War, when winning at the top international competitions had become a political statement about supremacy of the socialist system over the West. It is empowering to learn, based on the historical facts, that sports massage therapy played great role in giving the edge, to the Eastern Bloc Olympic Teams needed to dominate Games.

The science of sports massage is a very extended topic and I am not able in this article to go over all aspects of it. Since the above mentioned article refused validity of post-event sports massage, – I choose it to be the topic for this article and, hopefully, the first stepping stone on your journey through the world of Science of Sports Massage! So, let’s get straight to business.

The concept of post-event sports massage and its practical application with the goal of speeding up athletes’ recovery had been considered and researched by many Western European and American scientists working in the field of Sports Medicine. However, many of those scientists had concluded that massage does not have any significant impact on the process of recovery after vigorous exercise (Drews, et al., 1990; Carfarelli, et al., 1990; Rodenberg, et al., 1994; Tiidus, et al., 1995; Gupta, et al., 1996, Jonhagen S., et a., 2004).

In order to understand how they had come to that conclusion, let’s pretend you bought lottery ticket. Now, would you say that lottery does not work if you did not have a winning ticket or would you go for another ticket, hoping for more luck next time? That is exactly what happened with those authors, – they had simply drawn their conclusion based on one “unlucky lottery ticket” which is incorrectly applied post-even sports massage protocol.

Russian scientists who developed the concept of Russian Sports Massage had spent many years of looking for the right combination, leading to a “lucky winner protocol” (Sarkisov-Sirasini, 1957; Krilov et al., 1985 Burovik et al., 1989 etc.). Let us thank the Cold War for that!

Interestingly enough, even when that winning combination, presented in the form of the special protocol of post-event sports massage, there were scientists who were still trying to win that lottery while improvising and changing the formula offered by Russian scientists. No wonder, they had different outcomes! Hello! Just follow the protocol!!!

Here is the optimal protocol for the post-event recovery massage with four of its equally important components. Failure to follow even one of them would totally alter the outcome of the session.


All Eastern-European authors agree that massage has to be started around 2-2.5 hours after vigorous exercise (not earlier and not later).


The massage session has to last from 30-40 minutes to 1 hour. During this time the massage therapist works on the athlete’s whole body with special attention to the muscle groups that were overloaded during the vigorous exercise.


It is best to use the combination of effleurage, kneading, permanent vibration, gentle compression, stretching and long range shaking. However, 40-50% of the treatment has to be spent on kneading. With the proper execution of this technique, a therapist will be able to alternate stimulation and relaxation of the massaged muscles. Thus, kneading is the best tool for restoring muscular strength.


The applied pressure has to be significant but without the activation of the pain analyzing system. The threshold of pain varies from one part of the body to another, or even within the borders of the same massaged segment. Thus, the pressure has to be continually adjusted. The practitioner should use the wide contact areas of the hand and avoid the pinpoint application of massage strokes (e.g. using the tip of the thumb).

All Western articles, which reported the failure of massage therapy to speed up the recovery process (including article I mentioned), were united by one striking similarity. Despite a truly scientific approach to the evaluation of treatment outcomes, these studies neglected to follow the correct protocol of post-even massage I mentioned above. The Table below (Turchaninov, 2000) summarizes the protocols used in these studies and I would like the readers to compare them with the protocol I presented above.

Cafarell, et al., 1990 immediately after exercise 4 min
Drews, 1990 immediately after exercise 30 min
Wenos, et al., 1990 48 hours after exercise N/A
Rodenberg, et al., 1994 15 minutes after exercise 15 min
Tiidus, 1995 48 hours after exercise 10 min
Gupta, 1996 48 hours after exercise 10 min
Jonhagen S., et a., 2004 immediately after exercise 8 min

It seems that sports massage faced a great controversy. From one side these studies were conducted by respected authors in well known scientific institutions and they denied the impact of massage on recovery after muscle soreness. From other side the Russian scientists claimed and Soviet athletes proved that the protocol mentioned above works. There was no reconciliation in sight.

However, the scientific validity of post-event sports massage so long advocated by Russian scientists was proven beyond reasonable doubt by a group of authors from North Carolina and Virginia (Smith, L.L et al., 1994).

The Russian authors developed their protocol using the clinical observation mostly. They did not offer any scientific explanation as to why and how it works. The American scientists went much further when they confirmed the clinical validity of the post-event sports massage protocol and explained its mechanisms.

The first correct step the American scientists did, they decided to precisely re-create the Russian protocol in every small detail basing their experimental study on the publications from Russian scientific journals.

They evaluated the effect of massage on muscle soreness, by examining the athlete performance, detecting the level of creatine kinase (an enzyme indicator of muscle damage) and examining the neutrophil (an inflammatory white blood cell) count.

The American scientists found a very interesting chain of events in the overexercised muscle tissue. Vigorous exercises induce microdamage to the myofibrills with the following development of local aseptic (non-infectious) inflammation and interstitial edema in the overexercised muscles. The body reacts to this inflamation by sending neutrophils to the affected area.

Neutrophils enter the muscle tissue from the neighboring capillaries and start their cleaning job (i.e., phagocytosis) to remove the waste products produced by this inflammation. The increased concentration of neutrophils also attracts other types of phagocytic cells, macrophages. In the process of phagocytosis, catabolic enzymes are released from neutrophils, and they additionally damage already injured muscle fibers.

Dr. Smith and his colleagues, detected: temporary reduction of neutrophil count in the blood with simultaneous increase concentration of creatine kinase in the athletes after the vigorous exercise. The simultaneous increase in the concentration of creatine kinase was direct outcome of damage to the myofibrills by the enzymes released from the neutrophils. The study also showed that this process happens exactly within a 2-hour time limit after the end of excessive exercise.

This is what Smith and his associates, had to say in the conclusion of their article:
“During acute inflammation, blood flow slows as vessels dilate in an area of injury. When this occurs, the white blood cells, including neutrophils, are displaced from the central, axial zone of blood flow to the peripheral, plasmatic zone and subsequently marginate along the vessel walls. Since sport massage appears to increase blood flow through the vascular bed, the increased flow rate in the area of micro trauma could prevent the typical outward displacement of neutrophils. In addition, the mechanical action of sports massage could shear marginated cells from vessel walls and thus hinder emigration of cells from the circulation into tissues spaces.”
” …Control group exhibiting a more rapid and steeper increase CK (i.e. creatine kinase) values than the massage group” and
“…Sports massage rendered two hours after termination of unaccustomed eccentric exercise reduces the intensity of delayed onset muscle soreness and reduces serum creatine kinase levels.”

To fully understand and appreciate the importance of this study I will use the interactive diagram developed by Dr. R. Turchaninov which re-creates all these events in the chronological order. To replay the diagram please click at the beginning of the sliding bar (blue line) located just below the diagram.

The diagram shows the microphotograph of the human capillar with the blood flow in the center. The blood flow in the microphotograph is seen as a various types of the blood cells moving along the center of capillar (i.e, axial zone). Let us for a second imagine that this capillar is located in the skeletal muscle which two hours ago was exposed to the vigorous exercises. In such case the white areas on the both sides of the capillary walls will indicate the muscle tissue.

At the beginning of the interactive diagram the red arrow indicates the direction of the blood flow and the neutrophils cells are emphasized. As study showed that approximately two hours after the end of the vigorous exercises the neutrophils start to marginate closer to the capillary walls while they continue to flow with other blood cells along the capillar. This process is indicated in diagram as a margination.

After the neutrophils marginated close to the capillary walls they start to migrate through the walls into the tissue of skeletal muscles and this process is indicated in diagram as a migration. When neutrophils migrate into the tissue they release enzymes which additionally damage already affected myofibrils and this fact greatly contributes to the muscle soreness on the next day after the vigorous exercise. Thus as Russian and American scientists proved the massage strokes applied in two hours after the excessive exercise prevent margination of neutrophils inside the capillary bead and it decreases the excessive migration of neutrophils into the soft tissue which causes the unwanted damage of myofibrils.

There is one more issue I would like to mention here. Dr. Smith and his colleagues finally pointed out the exact cause of the delayed soreness after vigorous exercise. Intensive studies of physiology started in the middle 1980’s (Schwane et al., 1983) showed that the increase of the lactic acid does not have anything to do with the muscle soreness after the excessive exercise. In fact the lactic acid is one of the critical factors which supports the proper muscle contractions and without its increase the muscles were not be able to maintain necessary contraction rate. As it was correctly stated by B.J. Sharkey and S.E. Gaskill (2006):
“This fallacy has been around for years, even though it lacks any basis in fact. The lactic acid isn’t direct cause of the sourness”

Despite the fact that lactic acid’s myth was put in rest by modern science the question remained what causes the delayed muscle soreness. As Dr. Smith and his colleagues discovered the migration of the neutrophils into the skeletal muscles is the real cause of the pain and it is now obvious that only sports massage conducted according to the Russian sports massage protocol is able to eliminate this factor and help the athlete or sports enthusiast to recovery quicker and more efficiently.

Of course, the decrease of muscle soreness is not the only goal of Post-Event Sports Massage. Other objectives of Post-Event Sport Massage are:
To reduce the tension in muscles and connective tissue structures
To reduce peripheral vascular resistance
To accelerate drainage of venous blood as well as lymphatic fluid
and, ultimately: To balance the activities of the sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions of the autonomic nervous system

I hope that you, my dear readers, found great value in the theoretical and practical aspects of sports massage presented in this article. It is my sincere belief that only by uniting our efforts in sharing the knowledge of the science of sports massage, we will become a prevalent force in the arena of sports training and rehabilitation!

To contact O. Bouimer and acquire the information about Sports Massage Seminars or DVDs please visit:


Burovik A.N., Samsonova I.A., Manuilov I.A. Evaluation oh the Effect of Individual Variants of Sports Massage on Muscles’s Blood Flow. Soviet Sports Rev, 24:197-200, 1989.

Cafarelli E., Sim J., Carolan B., Liebesman J. Massage and Short Term Recovery From Muscle Fatigue. Int J Sports Med, 11:474-478, 1990.

Drews T., Kreider R.B., Drinkard B., Cortes C.W., Lester C., Somma C.T., Shall L.M., Woodhouse M. Effects of Postevent Massage on Repeated Ultra-Endurance Cycling. Int J Sports Med, 11:407, 1990.

Gupta S., Goswami A., Sadhukhan A.K., Mathur D.N. Comparative Study of Lactate Removal in Short Term Massage of Extremities, Active Recovery and Passive Recovery Period after Supramaximal Exercise Sessions. Int J Sports Med, 17:106-110, 1996.

Jonhagen S., Ackermann P., Eriksson T., Saartok T., Renstrom P.A.F.Sports Massage After Eccentric Exercise. Am J Sports Med, September 2004 32:1499-1503; 2004.

Krilov V.N., Talishev F.M., Burovik A.N. The Use of Restorative Massage in the Training of High Level Basketball Players. Soviet Sports Rev, 20:7-9, 1985.

Rodenberg J.B., Steenbeek D., Schiereck P., Bar P.R. Warm-up, Stretching and Massage Diminish Harmful Effects of Eccentric Exercises. Inter J Sports Med, 15:414-419, 1994.

Sarkisov-Sirasini I.M. Sports Massage. “Fizkultura I Sport”, 1957.

Schwane JA, Johnson SR, Vandenakker CB, Armstrong RB. Delayed-Onset Muscular Soreness and Plasma CPK and LDH activities after downhill running. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 15(1):51-6, 1983.

Sharkey B.J., Gaskill S.E. Sport Physiology For Coaches. Human Kinetics.Windsor, Champaign, Ill. 2006.

Schwane JA, Johnson SR, Vandenakker CB, Armstrong RB. Delayed-Onset Muscular Soreness and Plasma CPK and LDH activities after downhill running. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 15(1):51-6, 1983.

Smith L.L., Keating M.N., Holbert D., Spratt D.S., McCammon M.R., Smith S.S., Israel R.G. The Effect of Athletic Massage on Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. Creatine Kinase and Neutrophil Count. J. Orthop Sports Phys Ther, 19(2):93-99, 1994.

Tiidus P.M., Shoemaker J.K. Effleurage Massage, Muscle Blood Flow and Long Term Postexercise Strength Recovery. Inter J Sports Med, 16:475-483, 1995.

Turchaninov R. Therapeutic Massage. A Scientific Approach. ‘Aesculapius Books’, Phoenix, 2000.

Wenous J.Z., Brilla L.R., Morrison M.D. Effect of Massage on Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. Med Sci Sports Exer, 22:S34, 1990.

Oleg Bouimer, LMT
Oleg Bouimer, LMT, graduated from State Institute of Physical Education in Ukraine in 1985. Currently he has an extensive private practice in Los Angeles. Among his clients are celebrities, famous politicians and sports stars. The NBA, NHL and NFL widely recognize Oleg and the system of Russian Sports Massage. He teaches nationwide and has founded a Medical and Sports Massage Club in Los Angeles. Oleg is author of many articles in American and European professional journals. He can be reached by e-mail:

Category: Sport Massage