4 best types of massage and physical therapy for runners

There is plenty of confusion out there when it comes to the best types of massage or physical therapy for runners. Questions we regularly get asked include ‘when is the best time for massage?’ ‘Is deep tissue massage best?’ ‘How frequent should I get a massage?’. There are many more and over the course of this post I will highlight what has worked best for our clients and all my recommendations.

Let’s start with listing the different types of massage for runners. At Harbour Clinic we  specialise in various forms of massage and physical therapy. These include:

  • Sports massage
  • Deep tissue massage
  • Traditional physical therapy
  • Modern physical therapy aka Myofascial release


I have grouped traditional physical therapy and myofascial release with the massage options as they are all hands-on techniques and I honestly think that most clients have no preference except that to stay injury free and are fully prepared for their main event.

Runners are most familiar with deep tissue massage and sports massage. The main differences between these two modalities is that a sports massage targets the entire body, normally front to back and upper and lower body with quicker hand movements by the therapist, wringing tightness and adhesions from muscles and less pressure so as the recovery period is not so long. A sports massage can be performed for up to a few hours prior to a race.

A deep massage is exactly as the name suggests and should not be performed on the day or even the day before a race. Deep tissue massage is normally applied for the duration of someone’s training, reducing the effects of muscle soreness and increasing recovery times so they can continue to train harder and stay injury free. It is important to choose a therapist who has plenty of experience dealing with sports teams, maintains an interest in sports themselves and knows your body very well so they can focus on your stubborn areas and adhesions. By constantly swapping therapists or looking for the cheapest option you are not getting the prolonged benefits of seeing a therapist who frequently treats you and gets to know your needs.

I have grouped the last two as traditional physical therapy and modern physical therapy. I’ll explain why. At Harbour Clinic we specialise in a form of soft tissue ‘manipulation’ called myofascial release. Most other physical therapists use traditional myofascial techniques that include pining and stretching muscles, using thumbs and forearms to help release stubborn, tight and restricted tissue. This is fine and makes up at least 50% of our treatment plans and is a great resource for managing, treating and preventing injuries. The differences between traditional physical therapy and myofascial techniques to deep tissue massage include trigger point therapy, active release techniques, joint mobilisations and these techniques are normally always applied without oil.

Finally modern physical therapy and myofascial release is a much more specialised area than any of the above. Our therapist’s at Harbour Clinic have all undergone, to different levels, specialist training in the UK and US developing these skills. In a nutshell modern myofascial release can be applied to almost any condition or sports injury. One of the most common causes for runners is shin splints and knee pain. Hands-down modern myofascial release techniques have been the only thing that have resolved our athlete’s shin splints and knee overuse injuries. Modern myofascial release comprises of slowly and very gently applying sustained pressure to the connective tissue surrounding the injured muscles and joints, allowing the tissue to unwind and release the tightened and injured structures beneath. This allows inflammation to reduce, eliminates pain and restores normal range of motion. One of the many benefits of modern myofascial release is that it is non invasive meaning no muscle soreness allowing the athlete to continue his training without the usual immediate discomfort that accompanies deep tissue and traditional physical therapy techniques.

There is no right or wrong answer when it comes to choosing the right massage for runners. It’s a big market out there – everyone has their favourite type of massage and what works best for them. The important thing to remember is that everyone needs to manage their training plans and regular treatment should be a part of that plan. In our opinion ‘Weekend warriors’ should receive some form of treatment every six weeks and the more competitive athlete should be looking at more regular sessions, maybe every three to four weeks on top of their own self treatments and maintenance e.g. foam rolling and trigger point work.

We hope this helps any questions you may have had regarding what type of treatments work best for staying injury free so you can continue to enjoy the many benefits exercise and running has on your immediate and long term health.

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