In May of 2015, Indy 500 driver James Hinchcliffe crashed his race car while doing a practice lap. The collision sent a piece of the car’s suspension hurtling through his body, doing serious damage to his pelvis and glutes.
While Hinchcliffe was being rushed to the hospital, he had to be given 22 units of blood, twice the amount his body normally holds. He endured several surgeries, followed by months of convalescence.
It was the kind of crash that could have ended his career—but Hinchcliffe had two things in his favor: his fighting spirit, and the support of his trusted massage therapist, Karen Wiltrout, L.M.T.
After six months of massage therapy, Indy 500 driver Hinchcliffe was able to return to racing and regain his standing as one of the world’s best drivers, getting pole position in the 2016 Indy 500. Previously Hinchcliffe was a four-time Verizon IndyCar Series race winner and the 2011 Verizon IndyCar Series Rookie of the Year.
Hinchcliffe’s massage therapist described the role that massage plays in his career, the role she played in Hinchcliffe’s recovery and the motivations that drive her to be at the top of her field.
Back in Racing Shape
Wiltrout has carved a niche for herself by providing sports massage to race car drivers, working both out of her office in Indianapolis, Indiana, and at racetracks around the country. She is a Level 3 Fascial Stretch Therapist who is also certified in Kinesio Taping and Active Release Technique and has worked as a massage therapist for 23 years.
When Hinchcliffe decided to return to his sport, it was Wiltrout who helped him get back in racing shape. According to Wiltrout, “He couldn’t wait to get back in the car.”
Wiltrout and Hinchcliffe worked together in weekly sessions that incorporated Fascial Stretch Therapy, Active Release Technique, trigger-point therapy and deep tissue massage. Although Hinchcliffe would soon improve by leaps and bounds, progress during their first few sessions was slow.
“When I first came back from my accident, I had very little concept of how much flexibility I’d lost,” Hinchcliffe said. “Sitting in the same position for two months completely locked up my body, especially my legs, where most of the damage had been.”
At first, Hinchcliffe guarded his injuries. To get true stretch therapy, Wiltrout had to use extra oscillation and traction of the hip, moving very slowly in and out of positions. She gradually got Hinchcliffe to a place where he could let go of his body and let her do the work.
“While the first few sessions moved slowly, by the third time in we started seeing massive improvements,” Hinchcliffe said.
Crossing the Finish Line
Over the following weeks, Wiltrout saw Hinchcliffe’s initial wall of resistance slowly turn into fluid movements and observed that his stretches were getting deeper. She also saw that certain techniques were especially useful.
In a case study that she wrote on the experience, she noted that “Adding the overhead shoulder stretch in supine and side positions, while I moved him through lateral line and hip flexor series, was game changing.”
At the completion of their work, Hinchcliffe was convinced that he had better flexibility than he’d had before the accident.
“By the time our work was over and I was back to competition, I can confidently say that my movements and flexibility were far ahead of where I was before my accident,” he said. “Not only was the care first-class, the lessons learned about my body will serve me very well in athletics and general fitness moving forward.”
From having helped James Hinchcliffe and many other race car drivers, Wiltrout has a working knowledge of the unique stresses and strains that go along with the sport.
“Race car drivers have to deal with G-force. When they race, they’re bracing against major force, so [the objective] is to decompress their bodies and get their muscles to relax and let go and recover,” she explained. “The neck and back are big problem areas, and also their brake leg and shifting arm.”
Much of the work Wiltrout does is for injury prevention.
“To prevent injuries, I use deep tissue massage and Active Release Technique and Fascial Stretch Therapy,” Wiltrout continued. “Those are the main things that I use to help release tight muscles and speed up recovery of damaged muscle tissue. The idea is to get the muscles healthy and working together so that they can function at an optimum level.”
Wiltrout believes that Fascial Stretch Therapy, in particular, is key to drivers staying in top form.
“The current focus on Fascial Stretch Therapy and massage therapy for recovery is a result of how hard the drivers are working to prepare to race,” she said. “Drivers today are running marathons and triathlons; they’re in the gym every day and they’re realizing that the more fit their bodies are, the stronger they are, and the better they are in the car.”
When asked about the challenges and rewards that her particular line of work offers, Wiltrout said that for her, the challenge is the reward.
“I love the challenges, [and] that’s what I love about sports massage specifically and why I’ve drifted into sports massage as opposed to just doing general massage. I need the stimulation of a challenge.”
She added that her own energy is raised with she works with high-performance clients.
“There is a certain type of energy about working on an athlete who’s at that level, or about working with people who are driven and focused,” Wiltrout said. “And you feel that, and you’re a part of that.”
Phillip Weber is a San Diego-based writer and co-founder of The English Adept, a language-learning website where he blogs frequently. He wrote “Sports Massage Therapist Heads to the Olympic Games” and “Massage Therapists Adopt the Food Truck Trend” for massagemag.com.