If you have ever watched television coverage of a major cycling race, such as the Tour de France or Giro d’Italia, you have undoubtedly seen an array of motorcycles and cars huddled together, driving perilously close to the riders. These support vehicles carry a variety of supplies that are critical to keep the riders performing at their best. Some of the must-haves are what you might expect—water, food, extra tires and bicycles, but there is also one very important resource that one might not immediately think of—a massage therapist. Massage therapy plays an integral role in keeping a team’s riders in top form by helping to prevent injuries, improve performance and hasten recovery.
The most common cycling injuries are muscle strains and tearing as well as more serious injuries resulting from falls. The position that a cyclist needs to maintain in order to be aerodynamic is bent forward with arms and wrists extended and fingers flexed. The lower back bears the brunt of the strain, especially during climbing or when facing strong head winds, and riders often experience pain in their sciatic nerves. Shoulder and neck pain is also quite common, as riders must keep their heads up, but in an unnatural position in order to cut down on wind resistance. The constant demand on the legs results in a buildup of lactic acid, causing cramping, and the grueling pace leads to muscle strain.
The benefits of therapeutic massage for competitive cyclists are threefold, the first being as a preventative measure against injury. Massage gently stretches muscles, increasing flexibility and improving joint lubrication. Secondly, massage has been shown to enhance performance by helping to restore muscle tissue to its natural length. The position and motion involved in cycling causes muscle tissue to contract and when muscle tissue is returned to its natural length, it can generate more force. This translates to more power each time the cyclist pedals. Lastly, massage is an effective method to encourage faster recovery. Injuries are often accompanied by swelling, which hampers recovery. Massage releases fluid and toxins from the spaces between muscle fibers, improving circulation and allowing the flow of much needed oxygen and nutrients to the surrounding tissue. Enhanced nutrition and a reduction in swelling help to promote faster recovery times.
Massage therapy is also of benefit to non-competitive cyclists. It is common for amateur cyclists to overexert themselves, resulting in discomfort and injury. Many amateur event organizers are including massage at stops along their tours to help cyclists recover faster from a challenging ride and to help prevent injuries along the way.