Background: Post-exercise massage is one of the most frequently applied interventions to enhance recovery of athletes. However, evidence to support the efficacy of massage for performance recovery is scarce. Moreover, it has not yet been concluded under which conditions massage is effective.
Objective: The objective of this study was to perform a systematic review and meta-analysis of the available literature on massage for performance recovery.
Methods: We conducted a structured literature search and located 22 randomized controlled trials. These were analysed with respect to performance effects and various characteristics of the study design (type and duration of massage, type of exercise and performance test, duration of recovery period, training status of subjects).
Results: Of the 22 studies, 5 used techniques of automated massage (e.g., vibration), while the other 17 used classic manual massage. A tendency was found for shorter massage (5-12 min) to have larger effects (+6.6%, g = 0.34) than massage lasting more than 12 min (+1.0%, g = 0.06). The effects were larger for short-term recovery of up to 10 min (+7.9%, g = 0.45) than for recovery periods of more than 20 min (+2.4%, g = 0.08). Although after high-intensity mixed exercise, massage yielded medium positive effects (+14.4%, g = 0.61), the effects after strength exercise (+3.9%, g = 0.18) and endurance exercise (+1.3%, g = 0.12) were smaller. Moreover, a tendency was found for untrained subjects to benefit more from massage (+6.5%, g = 0.23) than trained athletes (+2.3%, g = 0.17).
Conclusion: The effects of massage on performance recovery are rather small and partly unclear, but can be relevant under appropriate circumstances (short-term recovery after intensive mixed training). However, it remains questionable if the limited effects justify the widespread use of massage as a recovery intervention in competitive athletes.