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The Effects of Precompetition Massage on the Kinematic Parameters of 20-m Sprint Performance

Fletcher, Iain M

The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research: May 2010 - Volume 24 - Issue 5 - p 1179-1183
doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181ceec0f
Original Article

Fletcher, IM. The effects of precompetition massage on the kinematic parameters of 20-m sprint performance. J Strength Cond Res 24(5): 1179-1183, 2010-The purpose of this study was to investigate what effect precompetition massage has on short-term sprint performance. Twenty male collegiate games players, with a minimum training/playing background of 3 sessions per week, were assigned to a randomized, counter-balanced, repeated-measures designed experiment used to analyze 20-m sprints performance. Three discrete warm-up modalities, consisting of precompetition massage, a traditional warm-up, and a precompetition massage combined with a traditional warm-up were used. Massage consisted of fast, superficial techniques designed to stimulate the main muscle groups associated with sprint running. Twenty-meter sprint performance and core temperature were assessed post warm-up interventions. Kinematic differences between sprints were assessed through a 2-dimensional computerized motion analysis system (alpha level p ≤ 0.05). Results indicated that sprint times in the warm-up and massage combined with warm-up conditions were significantly faster than massage alone. Also, step rate and mean knee velocity were found to be significantly greater in the warm-up and massage combined with warm-up modalities when compared to massage alone. No significant differences were demonstrated in any measures when the warm-up and massage and warm-up combined conditions were compared. Massage as a preperformance preparation strategy seems to decrease 20-m sprint performance when compared to a traditional warm-up, although its combination with a normal active warm-up seems to have no greater benefit then active warm-up alone. Therefore, massage use prior to competition is questionable because it appears to have no effective role in improving sprint performance.

Exercise Physiology Laboratory, School of Physical Education and Sports Sciences, University of Bedfordshire, Bedfordshire, United Kingdom

Address correspondence to Iain Fletcher,

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Interest in warm-up methods-and, in particular, which type of stretch modality to choose as part of the warm-up process-has become a much debated area (3,12,13,30). Massage is another frequently used method to help acute preparation before performance, yet it has received comparatively little attention. Massage, defined as a mechanical stimulation of tissues by means of rhythmically applied pressure and stretching (31), has been widely used for therapeutic purposes in most cultures since early civilization, with a long tradition of use in the sporting arena (9,16).

The claims for massage benefiting sports performers are numerous, ranging from improved stretching of connective tissue (33), to relieving muscle tension/tightness (32,36), to increasing blood volume and promoting the acceleration of venous blood flow (14) and release of trigger points, which are associated with increased internal resistance, muscle weakness, and poor timing/rhythm (28). Of interest, both increased (39) and decreased (10) neurological excitability is claimed to be caused by massage, depending on the type of massage employed (superficial and stimulating, which usually is used precompetition, or deep and relaxing, which is linked to postexercise recovery). With this in mind, the type of massage recommended for acute response is superficial at a fast rate effleurage (stroking) and pétrissage (kneading) (10,18). However, most claims for massage's positive effect seem to be anecdotal, with the empirical evidence to support its use limited. Indeed, Tiidus et al (38) and Shoemaker et al (34) found no effect on blood flow or muscle temperature when they looked at the physiological effects of massage. Despite the belief in its ability to increase acute performance (1,8,10,17), no peer-reviewed article to date has shown massage to have a positive acute benefit.

Warm-up modalities before high-intensity performance are designed to increase muscle temperature, increase enzyme reaction rates during energy production (37), increase functional range of motion to its optimal range (17), and stimulate the nervous system in preparation for performance. Both active and passive warm-ups have been shown to increase short-term high-intensity performance (6,12). Therefore, massage, as a passive warm-up modality, may have some benefits for the short sprint performance analyzed in this study.

Sprint performance is a vital component in many sports, with coaches searching for ways to help improve sports performers' short sprint ability. It is recognized that sprint performance is made up of 2 vital components: stride length and stride frequency (22,27), which are linked to musculotendinous unit (MTU) stiffness, regarded as one of the most important aspects in determining short-term high-intensity performance (11,24,29). If massage's reported effect on stimulating the nervous system or release of trigger points does occur, then muscle stiffness and therefore stride length/frequency could be positively affected, making massage a useful addition to increasing performance.

The aim of this study was to investigate whether massage on its own or when combined with a traditional warm-up effects short-term sprint performance. It is hypothesized that there will be a significant increase in sprint performance when massage is combined with a traditional warm-up compared to a traditional warm-up alone and a precompetition massage alone.

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Experimental Approach to the Problem

Three different warm-up protocols were used as independent variables. Precompetition massage (PM), precompetition massage combined with traditional active warm-up (PM&WU), and traditional active warm-up alone (WU), were performed in a randomized, counter-balanced, repeated-measures, within-subject designed experiment used to analyze 20-m sprints performance (dependent variable). Independent variables were chosen as popular precompetition strategies used by subjects in an attempt to start to establish optimum warm-up protocols. The dependent measure used was felt to be a relevant performance parameter important to success in all the sports in which subjects were involved. Each subject performed the prescribed warm-up protocol followed by 4 × 20-m strides then 2 × 20-m timed sprints. Testing was performed at weekly intervals. Reliability of the 20-m sprint measures used was assessed using intraclass correlation coefficient, with the level of reliability observed at 0.99 between the 2 sprints.

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Twenty male collegiate team sports players (age 22 ± 1.9 years, mass 83 ±12.4 kg, stature 1.80 ± 0.19 m) from rugby union, soccer, and basketball volunteered to be part of this study. Subjects were all experienced participants in their prospective events (minimum of 4 years) and trained or played a minimum of 3 times per week. All subjects undertook regular short-acceleration sprint training as part of their physical preparation; although none were specialist sprint athletes, they should be considered experienced in terms of sprinting in game-play situations. Testing was carried out in the middle of the subjects' competitive seasons (February). Procedures used were approved by an Institutional Committee for Ethics. Each subject was informed of any experimental risks, read and completed a health questionnaire, and signed a written informed consent. Subjects were asked to rest for 2 days prior to testing and to eat and drink as they normally would before a competition.

Sample size was estimated as follows (21):

n = 8 s2/d2

Where s = typical error and d = confidence limits. The sample size estimate was 15.

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Each subject underwent 3 randomized warm-up conditions prior to the completion of 2 × 20-m sprints. The fastest sprint was used for comparisons between interventions. Conditions employed were a precompetition massage (PM) modality, designed to stimulate the muscles most associated with sprint performance (26,27). The massage applied involved superficial and fast techniques with subjects supine on a massage couch and were administered by an experienced and qualified massage therapist. This involved 9 minutes of effleurage (rhythmic pressure strokes along the muscles' longitudinal axis in a distal to proximal fashion) at 30 strokes per minute and pétrissage (kneading and squeezing motions over the muscle mass) at 60 strokes per minute (19). As each leg was massaged, the subject was positioned with the knee flexed to 90 degrees and the foot resting on the couch, thereby allowing the therapist to access all the muscles requiring massage. The muscles massaged were the gastrocnemius (1 min per leg), tibialis anterior (30 s per leg because of the relative size of this muscle group), hamstrings group (1 min per leg), gluteals (1 min per muscle), and quadriceps group/hip flexor groups (1 min per limb). The first half of each period of massage used effleurage with pétrissage applied for the remainder. The effleurage was applied with light pressure and the pétrissage used light to medium pressure to focus solely on stimulatory effects for the targeted muscles. This was considered to be a general passive warm-up and was followed by a specific active warm-up of 4 × 20-m self-paced strides. The warm-up condition consisted of 4 laps of a standard sports hall at 30 s per lap pace (timed for reproducibility purposes), followed by 1 × 10 s of static stretching on the lower limb musculature at a point of mild discomfort. Muscle groups stretched were the same as those massaged in the PM intervention (stretch technique was demonstrated and enforced by the experimenter), followed by 4 × 20-m self-paced strides. The third intervention was precompetition massage combined with warm-up, which followed the PM format and, after 1 minute of rest, the WU format. Each sprint was electronically timed (Brower Timing Systems, Draper, Utah, USA) with a digital video recorder (Sony HVR-HD 1000E, Sony Corporation, Japan) set on a tripod, horizontal to the center of the hip joint of each subject and perpendicular to the 15-m point of a 20-m sprint (4). The camera was positioned 12 m from the 15-m point and zoomed to obtain a clear picture of 1 step (defined as 1 foot contact to the next foot contact of the opposite leg) (22). A 1-m calibration marker was taped to the floor at the 15-m point to aid kinematic analysis. The fastest of each sprint was analyzed kinematically (100 Hz) using a manual 2-dimensional digitizing system (KA basic version 6.0, San Francisco, CA, USA) measuring step length, step rate, and angular velocity. Aural temperature (Omron, MC-63B, Japan) was taken prior to each intervention started and directly after each condition, before the 2 maximal sprints. The thermometer was placed in the ear and temperature allowed to stabilize, following Arnett's (2) recommendations.

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Statistical Analyses

All data collected were assumed to be normally distributed because the Shapiro-Wilk's (<50 subjects) test for normality was found to have an alpha level of p > 0.05. A 1-way repeated-measures analysis of variance (ANOVA) was used to investigate any differences observed between interventions. Post-hoc analysis was carried out using Bonferroni, with the alpha level set at p ≤ 0.05.

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The results from Figure 1 indicate the differences between sprint times per warm-up trial. A repeated-measures ANOVA showed a significant difference between conditions for the 20-m sprint test (effect size = 0.838, p < 0.01). Pairwise comparisons found that sprint times for the WU condition resulted in a 2.74% significant decrease in sprint time when compared to the PM condition (p = 0.001). This was matched by a 2.44% significant decrease in sprint time when the PM&WU condition was compared to the PM modality (p = 0.025). All assumptions for linear statistics were met; therefore, the marginal differences between the WU and PM&WU condition were found to be nonsignificant. It should be noted that all subjects performed their slowest sprint under the massage-only condition.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Table 1 shows the kinematic differences in the sprint cycle. A repeated-measures ANOVA showed significant differences between conditions for the knee velocity (effect size = 0.783, p < 0.01). Pairwise comparison demonstrates that the WU and PM&WU modalities were found to have a 15.3% and 17% greater knee velocity then the PM condition (p = 0.032 and p = 0.025, respectively), whereas the 2% increase in knee velocity for the PM&WU condition compared to the WU intervention was found to be nonsignificant. When step length was examined, it was found that none of the modalities had a significant effect (p > 0.05) despite an increase in step length of 1.03% between the WU and PM&WU conditions. However, the repeated-measures ANOVA found significant differences in step rate (effect size = 0.815, p < 0.01). When the pairwise comparison was examined, it was found that WU and PM&WU modalities were significantly faster (p = 0.03 and p = 0.021, respectively) than the PM modality.

Table 1

Table 1

The small differences between WU and PM&WU conditions were found to be nonsignificant. Aural temperature was found to have no significant patterns post the 3 test conditions (WU 36.64°C ± 1.08, PM 36.48°C ± 0.97, PM&WU 36.89°C ± 1.05).

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The results indicated that the PM condition had a significantly longer sprint time than the WU or PM&WU conditions, despite being combined with a specific warm-up component (4 × 20-m strides). The reasons for this change in performance are possibly linked to a significant increase in step rate and knee velocity for the WU and PM&WU interventions compared to the PM condition. These kinematic changes may be linked to massage's effect on decreasing MTU stiffness (20,39). This is important because an increase in MTU stiffness has been reported to have an important contribution to high-intensity performance (24,29), including maximum running velocity (11). A decrease in MTU stiffness is associated with a decrease in the elastic storage of energy in the eccentric phase of muscle contraction (23,35), possibly disrupting the serial elastic component, which could be linked to a decrease in MTU power output and therefore the decrease in performance observed in this study. Of note, Bellie and Bosco (5) showed that stretch shortening actions (e.g., sprinting) were enhanced by a stiffer MTU, although it should be borne in mind that they used hopping rather then running as their mode of exercise. However, the results seem to show that massage's negative impact on sprint performance is mitigated by adding an active warm-up component prior to performance.

Stride frequency is important in terms of sprint running because it determines running speed to a far greater degree then stride length at maximal running speeds (27). Chelly and Denis (11) believed that a stiffer MTU contributes an elastic component to the leg muscles that in turn provides additional power needed to sustain high stride frequencies. If massage leads to more compliant tissue (39), this could decrease neural drive through the depression of the H reflex (3), which could lead to the significant decrease in step rate observed. No evidence was found in this study of the increased neural excitability that Cash (10) and Weerapong et al (39) believe can occur, despite using recommended acute preparation massage methods. Indeed, it appears that the changes more likely to occur postmassage are in parasympathetic activity following massage, resulting in a relaxation response (39).

It appears massage could help produce more compliant tissue, which could increase range of motion and therefore step length (15). This would be a result of massage relaxing muscle and enhancing joint flexibility by reducing the passive tension of antagonistic muscles (16-18) but at the cost of the compact and coordinated running mechanics associated with good step rate and high running speeds. Increases in muscle temperature (passive or active) have been linked to increases in performance (6,12). However, changes in performance in this study are unlikely to be temperature related because no significant difference was found between the aural temperatures recorded post each modality, despite the belief that temperature is increased in massage through its rubbing/needing action (39). Future work using muscle rather then core temperature may be needed to ascertain massage's specific effects in terms of temperature changes.

The more compliant muscle associated with massage modalities (20,39) is less able to store elastic energy in the rapid eccentric phase associated with sprinting while changing tendon structure (25). This makes it more compliant and leads to less efficient force transfer from the muscle to the tendon, which leads to a lower rate of force production (24) and velocity of contraction (7), resulting in an increase in time until external force can be expressed in powerful movements (12). This effect does not appear to be mitigated by including specific warm-up exercises (4 × 20-m strides) prior to performance of short sprint work.

Of note, combining massage with a traditional active warm-up had no greater effect on performance over a traditional warm-up alone. Therefore, at best massage may be time wasted in a warm-up, when more productive acute modalities could be introduced. Thus, the decrease in step rate and knee velocity observed after massage alone could be the result of a reduction in discharge from the muscle spindles because of an increase in muscle compliance. This may lead to a reduced efficiency in self-regulation and adaptation to different muscle loads and lengths, modifying running mechanics through loss of control and therefore negatively effecting optimum power output.

It can be concluded that precompetition massage is inferior to active warm-up as preparation for 20-m maximal sprint performance, whereas combining massage and active warm-up has no effect on 20-m sprint performance above warm-up alone.

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Practical Applications

It appears that the use of precompetition massage as a warm-up modality has little benefit for enhancing short-distance sprint performance. It should not be used as a replacement for a traditional active warm-up, and its combination with an active warm-up, although not detrimental to performance, does not improve performance beyond what an active warm-up achieves. Therefore, the inclusion of a massage as part of precompetition preparation seems to be a waste of an athlete's time, time that more productive training methods could be explored within. It should be noted that any negative effects associated with massage may be time dependent. This has not been as yet established; therefore, recommendations for massage would be to use it as a recovery modality and avoid it as part of a precompetition strategy.

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All funding for this project was provided by the University of Bedfordshire. The results of this study do not constitute endorsement of any product by the author or by the NSCA.

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sprint kinematics; musculotendinous unit stiffness; core temperature; warm-up

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