Since I started training as a massage therapist I’ve heard the same statement hundreds of times: “Massage reduces lactic acid in muscles. This reduces post-exercise soreness and removes the lactic acid toxin from the tissues.”
Not true. New understanding of lactic acid and its role in exercise and recovery points to a more complex role in the body’s systems. It turns out that lactic acid works itself out of the body within 30-60 minutes after exercise – whether or not massage is involved.
Lactic acid is more than just a byproduct of muscular contraction. It’s generated by muscles during periods of intense contraction and used as an energy source for muscle fibers and cells nearby. In cases of endurance training, lactic acid gets into the blood stream and provides an energy source for other parts of the body.
Lactic acid has also been found to fuel fibers in the heart cells and cells in the brain. The liver prefers to use lactic acid to make glucose for the blood when exercise is prolonged. The production of lactic acid is stimulated, in part, by circulating adrenalin; the combination of adrenalin and lactic acid helps protect against the electrolyte imbalance across muscle membranes brought on by the loss of potassium.
If there’s a biological process for removing lactic acid without the intervention of massage, how is it that massage improves muscle soreness and post-exercise aches?
We now know that the soreness in muscles after exertion is not caused by lactic acid, but rather, by microtears and inflammation of the muscle fibers, fascia and other surrounding tissue. Massage helps by reducing inflammation and supporting the body’s healing processes. Specific physiological processes haven’t been identified via research, but there is research that points to an specific reduction in muscle soreness when massage is applied after higher than normal exertion levels.
What’s this mean for massage therapists and massage lovers? You can still point to the positive research that correlates massage and muscle recovery. You just can’t say it’s because massage works lactic acid out of the muscles. The body does that on its own.
Photo Credit Flickr CCL: Horia Varlan