The argument over which are the fittest athletes may never be settled. Ask the question, and answers will likely range from decathletes to mixed martial arts fighters to squash players to defensive backs.
Yet, few athletes put themselves through the combined cardiovascular duress, jarring physicality and repetitive-use trauma that hockey players do as a matter of routine. The very game that requires their fitness is simultaneously stripping it away.
That’s why, in addition to seeking the best hockey equipment, many players seek massage as a tool to recover from injury or the stress of workouts, and to prevent overuse injuries.
“The biggest proponent for an athlete is time for recovery,” former Buffalo Sabres massage therapist Chuck Garlow told USA Hockey Magazine. “Massage is something that helps speed up that time for recovery.
“No matter if it is from an injury or fatigue, you are trying to maintain the level of performance that the player needs to have for every game they play in. They are using their bodies and the muscles in their bodies every day. So they have to be in top shape.”
Ancient Art/Sudden Acceptance
Massage has been an aid to physical performance since the ancient Roman physician Galen ordered it for the gladiators before and after their training. A bit over 200 years ago, Swedish fencer and gymnast Pehr Henrik Ling coined the term “kinesiotherapy” to describe his combination of massage and exercise.
More recently, Finnish runner Paavo Nurmi crediting, in part, his five gold medals at the 1924 Paris Olympics to massage therapy captured attention in the U.S. Though not until Jack Meagher’s 1980 book “Sports Massage” was interest in therapeutic massage for athletes truly sparked.
Let’s assume you’re interested, too — but you don’t want to end up with aroma therapy and hot stones if the games you play call for Gua Sha (a traditional Chinese muscle-scraping technique) or cupping (a suction-based tool for improving blood flow). In short, how to make sure someone doesn’t rub you the wrong way?
Areas to Assess
NHL injury reports are notorious for their lack of information, but take note of how often you hear of players going out with a “lower body” injury. That’s the first area to look at:
- Hockey muscles: The groin, lower back and core (abdominal) muscles take a lot of abuse in hockey, and thus command a lot of attention from a massage therapist. Skaters tend to have very strong hip abductors — the muscles along the outside of your thigh that take your legs away from the center of your body. They tend to strain adductors — inner-thigh muscles between your groin and knee. They’ll have short, tight piriformis and gluteus muscles — both of which are in the general vicinity of your back pockets. Any hockey player can tell you essentially balancing for long stretches on one leg will strain the lower back.
What about all the stick work, though? Shooting and passing the puck stresses a hockey player’s shoulder with repetitive rotations not unlike pitching, but pitchers never have to worry about throwing a slider coming out of a 360 or following up a curveball with a cross-check.
- Shoulders: Consider the biceps to be part of the package, but a massage therapist should be paying a lot of attention in this area to the deltoids. The group of muscles that make up the rotator cuff — the supraspinatus, subscapularis, infraspinatus and teres minor — are common sources of aching shoulders and impinged range of motion, and can be helped with massage.
What You Should Expect
Therapists will work to maintain or restore optimal length and strength to areas of concern. They’ll observe your posture and gait, they’ll review your issues, and they will use their hands to find trouble spots.
Techniques, among others, might include: Swedish massage (light to medium pressure), deep tissue massage (targeting knots and chronic tension, which can get uncomfortable but should never hurt), facilitated stretching, pinning and stretching (holding down and simultaneously stretching a muscle), muscle scraping (literally a hard tool scraped across the skin that will produce bruising) and cupping (Remember those circles Michael Phelps had all over his back at the 2016 Olympics? Cupping to improve blood flow).
Therapists will give you tips to help yourself, from stretches to the potential benefits accrued by carrying a street hockey ball or a roll of Kinesio Tape® in that new hockey bag of yours.
It’s All About the Goals
Ultimately, here’s what massage should bring to any muscle group:
- Tissue permeability. Deep massage opens membranes. Fluids, such as the lactic acid that makes tired legs feel simultaneous on fire and weighed down, pass easier and muscles recover quicker.
- Tissue elasticity. Hard muscles can lack flexibility. Picture a clenched fist. Massage opens the hand.
- Reduced scar tissue. Old injuries leave adhesions that limit flexibility and cause pain. Pain and altered range of motion break down technique and increase risk of injury. Massage breaks down those adhesions.
Will a massage make you stronger and faster? Not exactly. Nonetheless, a massage program — by shortening healing time, reducing swelling, increasing range of motion and relieving pain — should put you in a position to maximize your workouts. All of those will make you stronger and faster.
Author bio: AJ Lee is Marketing Specialist at Pro Stock Hockey, an online resource for pro stock hockey equipment. Lee picked up his first hockey stick at age 3 and hasn’t put it down yet. He’s an avid Blackhawks fan and is an expert in all things hockey equipment. Connect with Pro Stock Hockey on Facebook and Twitter.