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Massage: not all it's cracked up to be?

Just when you think you're all up to date on the latest science regarding getting into shape and keeping your body in a state where you can keep on getting fitter, some researcher comes along and blows your accepted truth out of the water.

We were all led to believe that our bodies need eight glasses of water a day to stay healthy. Turned out that not only is that a myth, but most normal people don't need to take in lots of water unless they live in hot, dry climates or are high performance athletes.

Now they're taking aim at massage.

If you do exercise a lot – whether you run marathons, play soccer or spend a bunch of time in the gym – there's a good chance you've sought out the services of a registered massage therapist. You were probably told that getting a massage after hard exercise will increase blood flow to your aching muscles and flush out waste products like lactic acid, the stuff the experts say causes that burning sensation in your muscles.

If you've ever suffered an exercise injury and seen a physiotherapist or a sports therapist, you've probably been told that. Go to the website of the Canadian Sport Massage Therapists Association and they'll tell you the same thing.

Well, a couple of researchers at Queen's University in Kingston beg to differ.

Kinesiology and Health Studies professor Michael Tschakovsky and Vicky Wiltshire, a student working towards her masters degree in kinesiology, say they decided to look at this topic because there's no scientific evidence backing up that claim. Their findings will be presented at the annual American College of Sports Medicine conference in Seattle, Wash., later this month.

Tschakovsky and Wiltshire had 12 healthy undergraduate male students do isometric handgrip exercises for two minutes. They measured forearm blood flow and lactic acid buildup every 30 seconds for 10 minutes immediately after the exercise period. The measurements were taken during rest, massage and "active recovery" (easy exercise).

They found that during massage, not only was there was no increase in blood flow or in flushing of waste materials from the muscles, there was actually a decrease in blood flow which hindered the removal of waste from the muscles.

So massage isn't helpful?

"What we're saying with this research …it's not that massage isn't good," Tschakovsky told me. "It's just that the common perception that it increases blood flow and helps in the removal of lactic acid isn't correct."

A lot of runners I know – including me – were convinced the theory was correct. My routine was to book a massage a few days before a marathon – made me feel like a racehorse raring to go - and a few days after, which I thought helped those still sore muscles feel better so I could get back out there and start getting ready for my next race sooner.

Tschakovsky says he's done the same thing – gone for a massage after soccer tournaments.

"Certainly it makes me feel better and it makes me feel as if my muscles are going to work better. It's just that it's not because of these claimed reasons."

Tschakovsky says if massage does improve performance and help you recover more quickly, science has yet to prove how it works. On the other hand, science has not proven that massage hinders performance and recovery.

The bottom line?

"It feels good, that's the truth of it. A lot of performance is psychological-based so if you feel better, if you feel you're in a better situation to do something, it probably has the ability to affect performance."

Oh and that lactic acid stuff? Turns out it's been getting a bad rap may be a myth too.

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