The Monday after a weekend triathlon, Tony Knight went straight to what might as well be the last leg of the race for him: a sports massage to work through some of the soreness and get him back on his bike.
"When you're bending and leaning out over handlebars, with your elbows out, your neck kind of locks up," he said, lying face-down on a table with massage therapist Scotty Barbour's elbow pressing into his back. "Saturday it was 15 miles."
A few years ago, Knight decided to get back into shape after a decade or so off. He quickly found that, in his late 30s, exercising wasn't as easy as it was in his 20s.
He hurt his back playing golf and spent six months trying to make the pain go away.
In desperation, he tried massage. It felt great.
Now he considers the cost of sports massage -- which isn't covered by most insurance plans -- part of the cost of being active.
More and more people are seeking out massage targeted to athletes, a treatment that aims to speed recovery time and improve performance. Sports massages tend to be more intense, deeper and more vigorous than traditional massages, and they focus on specific muscle groups, increasing circulation, removing toxins, and working to soothe or prevent injuries.
No hippy stuff
It used to be, when people thought of massages, they might think of something seamy -- or else some hippie's living room, with incense burning and light filtering in through bamboo shades.
But now massage is so mainstream that it's in spas, health clubs, corporate conventions, the mall -- even at a new barbershop opening in Raleigh, N.C. Doctors are much more likely to refer patients to massage therapists than they used to be.
Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh trains massage therapists for an industry it expects to continue to grow.
Nearly one in five adults got a massage last year, according to the American Massage Therapy Assn.; in 1997 only 8 percent had. And the number of massage therapists nearly doubled in that time. Americans spend $4 billion to $6 billion on visits to massage therapists now.
Sports massage is helping to drive that growth; people know that stress can damage their health and that exercise is important. And with all those no-longer-limber older people out there working out, massage has become a necessary luxury for many.
"Baby boomers are what's going to support our industry for the next 30 years," said Todd Durkin, a neuromuscular massage therapist, personal trainer and spokesman for the American Council on Exercise.
"They want to feel 25 or 30 again ... Many have abused their bodies, they're stressed out, burned out. They want to feel good again."
Workout for therapist
Barbour's business, Body Basics, in Raleigh, is trying to fill that niche. He contracts with the Carolina Hurricanes, working on players' legs after intense speed-skate drills, or doing trigger-point work on sore shoulders and backs to get players back on the ice. And the massage therapists work with people like Knight and Karen Marceau of Cary, N.C., a middle-age woman who's a beginner triathlete.
Marceau's husband gave her a massage as a gift between races. "It was great," she said. "It loosened me up. I was really tight." The therapist started with a physical assessment of things such as posture, alignment, injuries and range of motion, and sent her away with homework -- suggested stretches to benefit targeted muscle groups. On another visit the therapists urged her to warm up her ankles before running.
At Body Works there's no New-Age music shimmering in the background, no faux waterfalls trickling in the lobby.
Barbour and Kelly McCone wear navy scrubs and sneakers. Barbour keeps a set of weights in his office and the Dave Matthews Band jamming on his CD player.
He reaches into his holster -- a pocket attached to his belt with a jar of sports gel -- and kneads muscles so hard it looks exhausting. His vigorous massages are so intense, in fact, that he lost at least 10 pounds during the hockey season.
He pushed his hand, then his elbow into Knight's back, near the shoulder blade, really putting his weight into it. Knight had muscle spasms that hurt, so Barbour worked to loosen those muscles up and stop the twitching.
"It's not a cure-all for every injury," said Richard Cotton, an exercise physiologist and ACE spokesman. "Also, some people just don't like deep massage -- it's painful, and they just tense up against it."
It's not the soothing experience that many spas specialize in. "The sports massage really focuses on the muscles involved in the sports activity; it's a deeper, more aggressive, less comfortable massage," he said.