Thursday 13 July 2017

Massage: Confessions of an ex-pro cyclist (Part I)

Photo: Soigneur

With the 2017 Tour De France in full swing, it may come as a surprise to many, that every team will employ 4 or more masseurs (known in France as Soigneurs) and virtually every rider in the race will take sports massage as part of their daily routine. I’ve seen a great deal written on the topic of massage over the years (here, here), not all of it complimentary (forgive the unintended pun). So, rather than discuss the topic from the perspective of a physiotherapist, I’m going to make my observations on the topic from the recipient or service user, in this case, the rider. I’ll try to explain what compels Tour de France riders’ to take sports massage at the end of each stage, despite what the science may suggest. 

Why? I hear you ask … well partly, because (in what seems now, like another lifetime) I spent a number of years as both an amateur and professional cyclist and have more than a few tales to tell. I rode and survived 2 Tours of Ireland, 1 Tour of Flanders, 1 Professional Tour of Britain, and a host of other single day and stage races, during a long and occasionally successful career in the UK and on the continent. So, in essence, I have felt the pain and suffering of elite level sport, and spent more than my fair share of ‘time on the table’ under the hands of some of the finest masseurs/masseuses in the business.  

By way of illustration, allow me tell you a story that remains most vivid in my mind, relating to massage … it was the 243km 5th Stage of the 1988 Kellogg’s Tour of Britain, from Birmingham to Bristol. Unusually for a long stage, the race started from the gun and the peloton (big group of cyclists) was soon strung out in a line as the pace shot up to 28 mph +. We were in for a long day of toil, because not only was the pace high (and we had 4 days in our legs already), but then the rains came down, and the hills around Cheddar Gorge loomed ominously ahead. 

As the race splintered, I soon found myself in a group of non-climbers and we clubbed together to form what is commonly known in the sport as the ‘Laughing Group’ or autobus. That is, a collection of riders who ride together to make it to the finish inside the time limit for the race (a rider has to finish within a set percentage of the time of the stage winner, and the limit is pre-set by the race directors). The laughing group has a leader who calculates the timings and ensures the group tries hard enough to get to the finish just in time so that riders do not get eliminated (thrown off) the race. To do that, we all had to take our turn at the front, chain gang style, and I still recall today the pain in my legs as the cold rain drenched us, the grit blackened our faces, and the hills sapped at our strength and morale. The captain had done his job well and we limped in with 3 minutes to spare. I rode straight to the team hotel where I dropped my filthy bike with the mechanic. I wearily made my way to my room, where I quickly showered and lay on the bed in a fitful sleep, still shivering from the cold and the effort.
I don’t recall how much time had passed, but I was awoken from my fitful slumber by the room telephone, it was the team masseur. “Hey Al, you’re next on the table” he announced, with his usual enthusiasm. All my body wanted to do was sleep, I could think of nothing else. “Erm, I think I’ll give it a miss today, I think I’m just gonna sleep this off”, I said, rubbing the grit from my eyes. “No no … you’d better come down, the guys said you looked a bit pale when you came into the hotel, we’d best take a look at you, come on down now, I’m just two floors below”. “OK” I said weakly, unable to fight my corner, “Ok, I’ll be down in 5 minutes”. As I rose from the bed, I felt like I’d left my body and soul somewhere on the road between Birmingham and Bristol and my legs by this time, were aching more than I’d previously recalled, ever before in my career, I felt broken and drained. Despite this, I called on my last ounce of resilience and took the stairs down to the masseur’s room. It was a peculiar masochistic tendency of mine, just to see how good or bad my legs felt … they felt BAD, and I limped onto the massage table, already dreading the next day.

Photo: Kelly and Roche back in the old days.
Without batting an eyelid, the masseur said, “Tough day Al?” I settled onto the table and wearily began to purge myself of the story of my terrible day. I explained nervously, that he’d need to take it easy, because my legs were caning me from the efforts of the last 4 days, the rain, the cold, not to mention the distance. “I know … I can feel it”, he said confidently. Already a qualified physiotherapist by this time, I guessed knowingly, that he couldn’t really … he was just saying that, to make me feel better. However, I sensed that he’d started his work with a much lighter touch, and gradually he worked away at the thighs and calves, focusing on the sore spots that he found, with his skilled hands and fingers. 

After a short while he broke the silence, once he knew that I had relaxed into the session, “Big day tomorrow Al?” he said. “What do you mean” I asked, suddenly jolted back into reality. “Westminster circuit race”, he announced with a jaunty grin. “Oh” I said, suddenly recalling that we had a 100km race in the City of London barely 15 hours away. “It’s your big day isn’t it? Your chance to get up there with the big boys?” he announced confidently. Referring to the fact that flat circuit races like that were meant to be my specialty. “Oh” I said doubtfully. “Not with these legs”. “We’ll soon have you ship shape” he replied confidently, as the kidology continued and he kneaded and wrung my aching muscles. I sensed that he spent a little extra time on my legs that evening, as he worked hard to return the ‘souplesse’ (French word for flexibility and suppleness) into those tired muscles, and I could feel the pain ebbing away. As he worked, he talked, and we discussed how the next day would go, how I would find the strength and ability to play my part in the race with some of the World’s greatest riders (Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche etc.). Finally he said “Were all done, Al” … “Go and get some food, now the colour has returned to your face”. I rose gingerly from the massage table after 30+ minutes, truly feeling like another man.

'The pain in my legs had ebbed away, I was no longer broken … in fact I was looking forward to tomorrow, the finale in London, I was going to the capital city to finish my first Tour of Britain, and I was going to make it count.'

The physio within me was not to be fooled though, I did the ‘stair test’ on the way down to dinner, and sure enough, I could go down the steps two at a time, in fact I literally skipped the last two (bravado, I know). As I did so, I spied Sean Kelly sitting (looking a little perplexed, at my little leap), at a nearby table, quietly finishing his dinner with his team mates. I gave him a little wink as a strolled confidently past his table … I said (secretly to myself) “see you tomorrow big fella”.

The next day went like a dream, we took the coach transfer to London, and I felt like I was floating on air, yesterday’s ‘laughing group’ legs were gone, and I took my place on the start line feeling strong and confident. I truly did ‘mix it with the big boys’ that day. The 100km Westminster stage was won by the classy Dutchman Jacques Hanegraaf, and Mr Kelly, well he came second, perhaps because I’d made his legs hurt with my hard turns on the front of the race (ha, ha … that’s my story and I’m sticking to it). I finished that stage in the top 20 (my only top 20 placing in the whole race), for me it was a minor victory. As we sailed over the finish line I was close enough to Kelly to give him a little ‘frotter’ (French, to rub or chafe … riders use this technique to move through the peloton), he laughed this time, and gave me a friendly pat on the back as we coasted along on the momentum of the final sprint, our day’s work done. 
Photo: Sean Kelly

The masseur was the first to come over and congratulate me, “You rode like the wind Al” he said with a massive grin. I was high on the adrenaline of finishing my first big pro Tour in such exalted company. I said simply, “Well, if it wasn’t for you … I would never have made the start line today … end of!” He laughed out loud, saying nothing at all. I shook his hand as hard as I could, knowing what his eyes were saying … he was just doing his job.
So what does this story tell us, I hear you ask? Well it’s a simple story of a lived experience of massage from the perspective of a sportsperson, which I felt worth sharing. I wanted to share it because it illustrates what an incredibly powerful tool, massage and ‘time on the table’ is for the competitive athlete. 

The therapeutic alliance between the athlete and the masseur/masseuse during that 30-40 minutes is thought by many riders to be as valuable as training and sleep in the preparation for competition.

The naysayers and the sceptics will of course insist that my experience (and those of all of the TDF riders) was/is either a one off or, entirely down to pre-conceived expectations and/or the theatre of placebo. To those, I would say that the experience of immediate post race pain relief, together with improved mood, occurred time and time again under of the hands of good massage therapists AND if it was placebo … frankly as a sportsperson, truly I didn’t/don’t care.

As a therapist you should milk it, because if it means the difference between your athlete being able to compete at their best the next day (or not), then get comfortable with that.

Retro Jerseys FOR SALE!
For those who suggest that as an athlete, I should have built my resilience and not be reliant on passive modalities (such as massage), I would politely explain, that the half hour on the massage table is where I was able to cast off my demons, talk trough the tough times, plan my tactics for the next day, work on my kidology and actually develop my focus, my social support and therefore DEVELOP my resilience. Massage uniquely combines the power of touch with individualised sports psychology, there is no time during a competition where the athlete feel so at peace, yet strangely empowered and motivated, than on that massage table. 

My advice to therapists who wish to work in elite sport, is this:

Understand that there is a demand for massage within elite sport

Learn and understand the power of 'time on the table' 

Learn and practice the skills of soft tissue massage

Decide for yourself whether knots and sore spots exist in athletes muscles

Know your athletes inside out

Know the sport inside out (including the tactics and kidology involved)

Understand and accept that your 'time on the table' intervention may have a strong element of placebo

Combine all those skills and knowledge and APPLY judiciously

Put simply, there remains a strong demand for sports massage at the top level of sport. It is an intervention that just might make the difference between the starters and the non-starters, the winners and the losers. 

BUT it is worth remembering … this therapeutic intervention is as much about what you say, as what you do. Think of it not JUST as massage but rather ‘time on the table’, a vital blend of therapeutic touch and sport psychology, dare I say it … a truly biopsychosocial intervention ... where the physical, the psychological and the emotional are all considered equally in a holistic ritual.

Finally, I’ll just remind those sniffy cynics and sceptics out there, that this article was written anecdotally from the perspective of the service user (in this case, the rider) and is simply a description of one single experience (of many), which attempts to explain why elite athletes have such a long standing and passionate affinity with sports massage, and as such, it is not a scientific treatise.
Racing in France taught me a great deal, not least an admiration of the beauty of the French language. So, as this article has been peppered throughout, with French cycling terminology, allow me to take this opportunity to regale you of my favourite French expression of all …

“Jamais, p├ęter plus haut que son cul.” 

I'll leave the translation, this time ... to you!  

Sound advice for anyone, methinks.

Part II of this blog, will discuss massage from the perspective of the race Soigneur/Therapist and will consider the science behind the intervention … and THAT may reveal a different story completely?

Author: Alan J Taylor is a writer and critic who thinks about stuff and works as a Physiotherapist, University Assistant Professor and Medico-Legal expert witness ... The views contained in this blog are his own and are not linked to any organisation or institution. Like Bukowski, he 'writes to stay sane'.

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