Picture this: you’re getting ready to run a 5k, you see a massage table set up, and next to it the massage therapist offering a, what you say, a “free massage!?” But wait. There are no lines? How could this be?

benefits of a pre-race massage to warm up the muscles

As a massage therapist, one of my main goals is to support optimum performance for athletes. Often, I set up my massage table at local runs. One thing I’ve consistently noticed is that far fewer people take advantage of massage prior to the run than after. I find this surprising, given that the feedback from runners who’ve had a warm-up massage is so positive. I have consistently heard statements from these runners, such as “it really helped” or “I didn’t flag at the final hill”, or “I usually cramp in my calf, but not this time.”

Initially, I didn’t think much of it, but recently when offering massage at a local run, almost no runners came to my table before the run, and I heard some comments about not wanting to get “too loose”. This (and a conversation with Ginger Smith of the Monadnock Regional Milers) got me thinking about why pre-race massage is so effective.

Three main reasons come to mind:

  • Activate the parasympathetic nervous system
  • Warm up more completely
  • Get “in the zone”


In simple terms, there are two states your body can function in. Sympathetic and Parasympathetic. In the sympathetic state, your body and mind are in a hyperactive state, your adrenaline is pumping, your muscles are tense and your overall state of mind is, “I’m raring to go!” One would think that this is the optimum state to be in before physical exertion. However, upon reflection, study, and discussion, I believe that bringing the parasympathetic (the “rest and digest” nervous system) into play is equally important. In parasympathetic, your body is able to relax; you feel alert and calm, able to focus and stay present. In this state, you are truly able to fully warm up and also prepare your mind emotionally for the endurance it takes to accomplish a run. Massage, even briefly, can stimulate the parasympathetic response.

Another way that massage can help is warming up. Doing your usual stretches and running enough to get warm is standard. However, this sort of warm up routine is often minimal and barely activates the primary muscles used during running, much less warms and activates the secondary (but equally important) muscles. For more on this idea see my previous blog post: Conscious Therapeutic Bodywork (Part 2).  The advantage of massage is in how extensively the muscles and other tissues can be addressed to achieve a complete state of being “warmed up”.
Here’s an analogy: think of your running stride like a needle in a record groove. Each time you stride, the pattern of which muscles are performing that movement is very specific, just like an individual song on your favorite album. When warming up, the ability to stretch the limits of those familiar patterns is likewise set in a “groove” and often a bit challenging to expand beyond that groove.

The advantage of an external influence on the muscles and tissues is that certain muscle groups that aren’t in the habit of sliding against each other can be coaxed into greater movement, areas of chronic tightness that don’t easily respond can have much-needed blood flow increased, hard to stretch areas can be gradually activated… all of this can happen and in a way that is relaxing yet invigorating. Which brings me to the third benefit.

Getting in the zone. This doesn’t only have to happen for a professional athlete, like Steph Curry in an NBA finals game. It can happen in a familiar situation: by navigating the stress of an extra challenge with calm and focus. Whether that heightened stress is going for a new PR, or a particularly cold and wet day dampening your motivation, or just trying to beat your running mate, having the experience of being ready and relaxed in the midst of that stress can go a long way toward removing distracting influences, and finding calm and focus during your run.

To sum it all up, here is a report from the Spring Fling run in Peterborough, NH this year:

“My perspective is from a former athlete that is no longer actively training, not to say I don’t have an active lifestyle but I don’t have a training regimen in place. I see the chiropractor twice a month. The day of that 5k I had yet to sleep having worked 11-7 so besides being tense and tight I was asleep on my feet. I was excited about participating but was fearing the pain that I knew I would feel. When you convinced me to be the first on the table I was apprehensive because I was stretching and loosening up but feared I would not want to get off the table to run after all. Well, although there was some discomfort initially during the massage (I’m sure it was not easy for you as well) I felt the tense sore muscles relaxing and melting away. I felt like jelly when I first got up and felt invigorated and more positive about the run. I could have paced myself better, but I was amazed that I was able to complete the run without walking and I felt better than I ever could have imagined. I was still exhausted, but couldn’t believe that I wasn’t even stiff when I got up from a nap that day.”

– A. Veverka

So, the next time you see someone offering free massage at a race, pay him or her a visit before the event to see how it might benefit your run. Try it out and compare the differences! And of course, don’t forget to consider periodic bodywork to keep you in great shape while you’re training too.

Phillip Malone is an East West College Alumnus living and practicing massage in the Peterborough, NH area.  Read more blog posts on his website: www.malonebodywork.com