What is sports massage and how is it different from the type of massage therapy that most people are familiar with? Can someone who isn’t a professional athlete benefit from a sports massage? How does a massage therapist become a sports massage specialist?
To answer those questions, we spoke with three registered massage therapists (RMTs), all of whom teach at Vicars School of Massage Therapy, and who have made sports massage an important part of their practice.
Tonia Vipler teaches at our Calgary campus. She has always been interested in body mechanics and athletic recovery—she’s a life-long athlete and trained as a kinesiologist before becoming an RMT—so incorporating sports massage into her practice was a natural fit. She has noticed that the general public (and even some athletes) are often uncertain of just what sports massage. So she explains it to her clients as a massage treatment that is specifically focused on the muscles and muscle areas that are most commonly used by athletes in their sport.
Earlier in her massage career, Tonia worked both as a massage therapist and personal trainer, with clients overlapping between the two disciplines. That’s when her work in sports massage started. Nowadays, her practice is with ‘everyday athletes,’ such as people who are training for a marathon, Iron Man, or cycling trip.
A big part of Tonia’s practice is educating clients about their bodies, and why it’s important to incorporate massage into their training schedule. Rather than coming to her for the first time when they are injured, Tonia wants to make people aware that massage is a tool that can be incorporated into their athletic schedule from the start, in the same way they would optimize their diet and sleep to maximize performance and prevent injury.
“I like to remind people who aren’t professional athletes that sports massage could be part of their journey to prevent any injuries,” she says. She also offers mobile massage and finds her clientele is shifting to include more families with younger athletes. “Right now, I work with younger kids, teaching them that massage is a really good tool for their athletic journey throughout their lives.”
Tonia describes the techniques used in sports massage as the same techniques that students learn at Vicars School of Massage Therapy. The key is how, and when, techniques are used. Sports massage often requires more dynamic movement in the massage than a relaxation massage, using more vigorous muscle stripping, stretching, and myofascial techniques.
Edmonton instructor Kerri Wagensveld agrees.
“The techniques I use are not specific to sports massage,” she says. “For example, compressions, which I use as an opening technique to help relax my client and prepare their muscles for deeper work, is a very foundational technique that we teach our first-year students.”
Kerri has always been interested in sports massage. After she graduated from Vicars, she was mentored by sports massage specialist Kip Petch at St. Albert’s Active Life Centre. She still works there, as well as at Active Physioworks Magrath in South Edmonton, where her clientele includes many types of athletes, among them ultramarathoners like herself. She is a member of the Canadian Sports Massage Therapist Association (CSMTA), a nationally recognized organization that offers courses and conferences for ongoing learning in the specialty. Joining the CSMTA requires RMT certification, a Standard First Aid certificate with CPR, completion of the CSMTA Advanced Sport Massage Course, among other requirements. Members of CSMTA are often selected to be part of the core medical team serving athletes at major sporting events such as the Olympics.
For Kerri, a huge part of practicing sports massage is understanding that it’s not only about the needs of the physical body.
“It’s knowing how to respond to an athlete to help them prepare mentally and being part of their team in preparation for their performance,” she says.
While most Kerri’s practice is in the clinic, she loves being out in the sports field whenever she can. But that’s not for everyone: “At a sporting event, you’re constantly dealing with dirt and sweat, depending on the sport you’re working with,” she says. “It can be a messy, stinky situation so you have to be OK working with that and being prepared to do a lot of cleaning of both you, your environment, and your equipment.”
At Vicars, we try to introduce our students to as many different facets of the massage therapy profession. That includes organizing outreach opportunities at sporting events.
Instructor Marci Terpsma has been the main organizer of our Edmonton outreach program for many years.
“We take the students off campus to 10K and 5K runs and ultramarathons to expose them to different aspects of our job,” she says. “When they’re on the field they have to think critically and quickly and take what they learned in class and put that knowledge into practice in the moment.”
That quick decision-making is more important, in Marci’s experience, than the potential physical mismatch between an RMT and an athlete. “You can be the tiniest of therapists dealing with the strongest of men and it’s all about the RMT assessing what needs to be done and just doing it,” she says. Sports massage often concentrates on a target muscle group. “If it’s a softball player, I’m more focused on shoulders and arms and if it’s a hockey player, then the legs,” she says. “And if it’s a pre-event massage it’s very focused on a specific area for 10 to 15 minutes.”
Marci runs REVIVE Health & Wellness Studio in Beaumont, where 15 of the 16 RMTs are Vicars graduates. Outside of the clinic, she works with higher level athletes on sports teams, including a competitive girls’ softball team who travel to competitions around Canada. Most of her work is maintaining the athletes’ bodies, preparing them pre-event to increase flexibility and range of motion, and working with injuries and recovery. Echoing Tonia and Kerri, Marci says the same principles of massage are involved whether she’s giving a relaxation or deep tissue massage.
As the age of competitive athletes is getting younger, Marci is finding that the parents of these athletes are much more educated about the benefits of massage to their children’s athletic goals and overall health, than parents were a decade ago. As sports massage therapy carves out a place for itself alongside other components of an athlete’s program, Marci finds herself in a fortunate position.
“I am always right up there with my knowledge thanks to our curriculum at Vicars,” she says. “What I learn is exactly what I am teaching students.” She’s the go-to person at her clinic for questions about particular approaches or treatment modality for clients because of her up-to-date knowledge.
While research on sports massage and its physiological benefits lags far behind the field’s burgeoning popularity, all three RMTs passionately endorse its benefits to athletic wellbeing that they have observed and experienced. And their passion directly benefits Vicars students.
“The quality of education at Vicars is second to none, largely because the instructors are passionate about what they do,” says Marci. “That’s easy to convey to students and that leads to a level of education where we expect the best from students.”
Does helping marathon runners, volleyball teams, or rock climbers achieve their goals sound like your dream career? Contact our friendly admissions team by calling us toll-free at 1-866-491-0574, or sign up for a virtual open house! And if you’re an athlete looking to stay healthy and improve your recovery, you can book an appointment at our student clinic.