I’m always sad when I hear of a massage therapist whose career has been cut short because of body issues; carpal tunnel, painful hands and fingers, bad backs, etc. We were all taught proper body mechanics in massage school so I wonder why that happens?
I’ve run marathons for years and I can’t help notice how similar my work as a massage therapist is to training for one. Granted, that may not be something a non-runner would have really ever considered, but hear me out. Serious runners work hard at holding consistent, proper form and technique for all 26.2 miles, no easy feat, believe me. It doesn’t matter if we run a sub-three-hour marathon (which, BTW, is pretty incredible) or a six-hour marathon, if we don’t focus on form and technique, then injuries happen or, worse yet, you don’t finish. And it’s not just the race; the race is just a few hours out of the enormous amount of time spent training for it.
Being a massage therapist really isn’t all that different from being a runner. Runners put focused, repetitive stress on their bodies’ by piling on mileage in daily workouts and long weekend runs. Massage therapists do the same thing, except we do it all day long, day after day, client after client.
So, how do we keep from hurting ourselves and still work like we do? I’d like to offer three similarities between my profession and my obsession that I feel have really helped keep me stay at a high level of massage fitness could benefit even the couch potatoes among us.
Pushing hard does not always yield the best results. You’re at the starting line of a race, the gun goes off, and you take off like a bullet. At mile 18 you start to poop out. At mile 21 you can barely walk. At mile 23 your body’s had it and you quit. You’ve pushed too hard and now your body’s finished before the finish line.
There’s a perception that a therapist has to push hard to do deep work, but pushing too hard doesn’t always yield the best results. In the finesse vs. force debate, I’d like to put in my two cents for finesse. Finding the perfect spot in a taut muscle band, learning how to take your client up to the edge of “too much” and hold them there (using a pressure that can be easily sustained) until they can breathe through it and let the tissue release is, in my experience, the most effective way to not only help your client but to reduce the risk of injury to you. That sweet spot responds best to even, firm, sustained pressure. The kind of pressure you could hold all day, not unlike the kind of pace you could hold for an entire marathon. It is efficient, almost effortless, and, more importantly, it doesn’t break you.
Be as fit as you can possibly be. Most endurance athletes do more than just run. They swim, they bike, they lift weights. Why? Because the greater your fitness the better prepared you are to excel in your sport.
Let’s face it, massage is an endurance sport…heck, I think life is an endurance sport. And everyone, therapist and client alike, should always be ready for it by staying as fit as possible because, at some point in our lives, we’re all going to need it. We have no idea when an injury or illness is going to present itself but the fitter we are, the better chance we have of surviving it. Although not everyone is marathon material, regular strenuous exercise within your capabilities is excellent cross-training to keep you in top shape for the daily stress we all encounter as massage therapists.
Don’t forget to breathe. The breath is everything…try not doing it for a while and see how far that gets you. One of the prime rules for runners that also holds true for massage therapists is “control your breathing.” That means you need to utilize your breath to keep you relaxed and in the moment.
We always tell our clients to take a deep breath but it’s just as important for us to take one as well. The occasional deep breath does a couple things. First of all, if your client hears you take a deep inhale and then a long, slow exhale it gives him/her a clue that they should do the same thing, especially since you’ve trained them about relaxing during an exhale (you did that, right?). Secondly, with a deep breath you suddenly notice things like your shoulder up around your ears, or that you’re putting too much pressure on your thumbs or hands. It’s not a coincidence that when you’re hanging on a trigger point, and you and your client breath simultaneously, that the trigger point has a tendency to release much sooner.
As massage therapists we know what we’re supposed to do, but we all get tired and at some point lose our form and technique. It happens. My suggestion for maintaining our longevity is to do what runners do. Every so often do a quick scan. Take a look at how you’re working. Take a walk. Take a deep breath. For an endurance athlete, training is cumulative; we don’t actually realize the effect of the per-workout effort until we cross the finish line, healthy and with a personal record. Massage is no different. It’s all the little things we do every day to work smarter and more efficiently that will keep us healthy for a long time. All those things don’t seem like a big deal until one day, all to soon, you look back at all the steps you’ve taken for the past 26.2 years. Then it’s a marathon.