I’m always sad when I hear of a massage therapist whose career has been cut short because of body issues: carpal tunnel syndrome, painful hands and fingers or a bad back. We were all taught proper body mechanics in massage school—so why does that happen?
Massage is like a marathon
I’ve run marathons for years, and I can’t help noticing how similar my work as a massage therapist is to training for these events. Granted, this analogy may not be something a non-runner would have ever considered, but hear me out.
Serious runners work hard at holding consistent, proper form and technique for all 26.2 miles. That’s no easy feat; believe me. It doesn’t matter if you run a marathon in less than three hours—which, by the way, is pretty incredible—or a six-hour marathon; if you don’t focus on form and technique, injuries happen or, worse yet, you don’t finish. And it’s not just the race; the race is just a few hours out of the enormous amount of time you spend training for it.
Being a massage therapist really isn’t all that different from being a runner. Runners put focused, repetitive stress on their bodies by piling on mileage in daily workouts and long weekend runs. Massage therapists do the same thing, except we do it all day long, day after day, client after client.
So, how do we keep from hurting ourselves and still do the work we do? I’d like to offer three similarities between my massage therapy profession and marathon running that I feel have helped keep me at a high level of massage fitness.
1. Pushing hard does not always yield the best results
You’re at the starting line of a race, the gun goes off, and you take off like a bullet. At mile 18 you start to poop out. At mile 21 you can barely walk. At mile 23 your body’s had it and you quit. You’ve pushed too hard and now your body’s finished before the finish line.
There’s a perception that a massage therapist has to push hard to do deep work, but pushing too hard doesn’t always yield the best results. In the finesse-vs.-force debate, I’d like to put in my two cents for finesse.
Finding the perfect spot in a taut muscle band, learning how to take your clients up to the edge of too much and hold them there using a pressure that can be easily sustained, until they can breathe through it and let the tissue release is, in my experience, the most effective way to not only help your client but to reduce the risk of injury to yourself.
In massage, that sweet spot responds best to even, firm, sustained pressure; the kind of pressure you could hold all day, not unlike the kind of pace you could hold for an entire marathon. It is efficient, almost effortless, and, more importantly, it doesn’t break you.
2. Be as fit as you can possibly be
Most endurance athletes do more than just run—they swim, bike and lift weights. Why? Because the greater your fitness, the better prepared you are to excel in your sport.
Massage, like life, is an endurance sport—and everyone, therapist and client alike, should always be ready by staying as fit as possible because, at some point in our lives, we’re all going to need our strength. We have no idea when an injury or illness is going to present itself, but the fitter we are, the better chance we have of surviving it.
Although not everyone is marathon material, regular strenuous exercise within your capabilities is excellent cross-training to keep you in top shape for the daily stress we all encounter as massage therapists.
3. Don’t forget to breathe
One of the prime rules for runners also holds true for massage therapists: Control your breathing. That means you need to utilize your breath to keep you relaxed and in the moment. We always tell our clients to take a deep breath, but it’s just as important for us to take one as well.
The occasional deep breath does a couple of things. First of all, if your client hears you take a deep inhale and then a long, slow exhale, it gives her a clue that she should do the same thing, especially since you’ve trained her about relaxing during an exhale. (You did that, right?)
Secondly, when you take a deep breath you suddenly notice things like, your shoulders up around your ears, or that you’re putting too much pressure on your thumbs or hands. It’s not a coincidence that when you’re hanging on a trigger point, and you and your client breathe simultaneously, that the trigger point has a tendency to release much sooner.
Watch your form
As massage therapists, we know what we’re supposed to do, but we all get tired and at some point lose our form and technique. It happens. My suggestion for maintaining longevity is to do what runners do: Every so often, do a quick scan. Take a look at how you’re working. Take a walk. Take a deep breath. For an endurance athlete, training is cumulative: We don’t actually realize the effect of the per-workout effort until we cross the finish line, healthy and with a personal record.
Massage is no different. It’s all the little things we do every day to work smarter and more efficiently that will keep us healthy for a long time. All those things don’t seem like a big deal until one day, all too soon, you look back at all the steps you’ve taken for the past 26.2 years. Then it’s a marathon.
About the Author
George Davis is a marathon runner, massage therapist, and educator at Hawaii Bodyworkers Retreat, a six-day continuing education and Hawaiian vacation experience. Contact hawaiibodyworkersretreat.com for more information.