The sheer hell of a sports massageDeep tissue massages that are designed to help sportsmen recover after exercise embody the truism that where there's no pain, there's no gain, writes Andrew GriffithsKneedling out the pain: sports massage is not for the faint of hear 

Most would call stumbling out of bed first thing in the morning and stepping on a golf ball in your bare feet an unfortunate accident. But not, I recently learnt, a sports physiotherapist.

“No, I’m not joking,” said therapist Vaska Stefanova, as I gingerly dressed myself following a good pummeling. “Stand on the golf ball with the ball at the sole of your feet and put as much weight on it as you can bear. It will replicate what I was doing to you before with my fingers.”

She meant when I was screaming in agony five minutes earlier while she was using the wall for leverage and digging her finger into my foot.

This sports massage thing … it hurts. And this thing with the golf ball … it really hurts. I feel like we're working up to the 'blind 3am stumble to the toilet and standing on an upturned plug' therapy.

A haphazard quest for health and fitness had brought me to Vaska's small consulting room. After a few weeks of building up the running, my legs had started to stiffen and complain. I'd hobbled into a hostile realm of pain, and sports massage was suggested as a solution. I wasn't sure at first, thinking this kind of thing to be the preserve of the serious athlete or the idle rich. Unfortunately, due to an aberration in the space-time continuum which had left me mortally bound to a life I was now forced to live in error, I was neither.

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The word ‘massage’ though did conjure up vague, relaxing motifs, such as tea lights and pleasant music plucked out on a sitar. So I thought I’d give it a go, by way of some small compensation for the cosmic cock-up thing.

In the cold light of the consulting room, Vaska laughed when I inquired after the candles and the wafting music.

“Sports massage is everything but pampering,” she said. “It can be quite uncomfortable at first.”

She began with what she called a ‘postural assessment’, which involved me standing there in my boxers while she circled me slowly with a critical look in her eye. I felt like a second hand car.

But within a couple of minutes she had identified the reasons why I have suffered half a lifetime of bad knees, ankle tendons and back. I have lateral hip rotation and forward pelvic tilt, apparently. Who knew?

“Right Andy,” she said, ominously. “First we are going to find your pain threshold, then we are going to operate just beneath it.”

As a sales pitch it left a lot to be desired, but for honesty, it scored ten out of ten.

Vaska talks of ‘good pain’ and ‘bad pain’ and as she worked I realised that this was ‘good pain’. My spine soon testified as much, emitting a satisfying click as it regained its natural alignment.

It was my legs which required the most attention, though. My calves and Achilles tendons were both brutally tight – a problem which painfully manifested itself in the ligaments in the soles of my feet and heels. Hence the golf ball treatment.

“It is called Plantar fasciitis.” she said, chatting away as her fingers gripped my hamstrings like one of those claws which picks up old cars in a scrapyard and drops them into the crusher. “It is not uncommon in people of your age.”

A few days of playing the ‘let’s see how long we can stand on a golf ball’ game in the mornings and the pain had been downgraded from ‘f***ing agony’ to ‘bloody painful’. It was progress of sorts. After a few weeks, rocking my bare foot around that hard little golf ball was beginning to feel like, well, good pain.

Sports massage works deep in the muscles, realigning the muscle fibres and connective tissue, and flushing away the toxins. Regular sessions will increase joint mobility and flexibility, and reduce the risk of injury during exercise.

A session a week takes between 45 minutes and an hour for the full body drubbing, and it really does put a new spring in your step that lasts for a few days afterwards.

For my own condition of Plantar Fasciitis, time seems to be the great healer. Regular sports massage sessions are helping though, combined with calf muscle and Achilles tendon stretching and strengthening exercises.

There is no magic cure, but a vigorous session a week in the firm grip of a skilled sports therapist and I am beginning to take a brisk step in the right direction.



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