Sports Massage vs. Thai Massage: Which Is Better?

Sports Massage vs. Thai Massage: Which Is Better?

Massage therapy is an ancient form of manual therapy that continues to find popularity today. However, because this type of treatment has existed for thousands of years, it’s birthed dozens of specific types, including sports massage and Thai massage. But which one is better?

Neither is better than the other. These therapies differ significantly. Sports massage is a type of treatment designed to treat athletic injuries and prevent future injuries from developing. Thai massage is an ancient form of massage therapy that is used to reduce stress and increase flexibility.

These two types of massage therapy differ significantly, though they do offer some similar benefits. Still, we’ll need to take a closer look at these treatments to discover where they come from, how they work, and which one is the better option. Let’s begin!

What Is Sports Massage?

Sports massage is a type of massage therapy designed to help athletic injuries while also preventing future injuries. Therapists may use a wide range of techniques during a sports massage session, and the exact techniques and areas of focus depend on the type of sports massage – pre event, post event, or off season.

For example, a bowler might require an arm, shoulder, and back treatment to achieve optimal athletic performance prior to a competition. A soccer player may require foot, ankle, and leg therapy after a tough match. Still, no matter what type of sports therapy you choose, the session could be fairly intense.

Additionally, sports massage therapies are often performed before and after exercise. Clients often enjoy the most effective results when they attend multiple sessions.

History of Sports Massage

Sports massage has a long and storied history. This form of therapy may date back to 776 BC, making this type of massage nearly 3,000 years old! The origin of sports massage is often traced back to the first Olympic games. This massive sporting event took place in Olympia, Greece.

Early Greek physicians and therapists likely developed sports massage to treat athletic injuries and improve performance. The Roman Empire would take this concept and rework it to fit their needs (much like Greek art, religion, and medical knowledge).

The Romans enjoyed sports entertainment just as much as modern folks. Their athletes were primarily gladiators. Interestingly, a Greek physician named Galen would go on to change the Roman view of massage therapy.

Not only did he attend to some of the most influential and affluent members of ancient Rome, but Galen also promoted sports massage therapy. Galen recommended two massage sessions to keep the gladiators in tip-top shape: one before exercise and one after.

Sports massage has become far more popular and accessible since those ancient days. Olympians and professional athletes still engage in regular massage therapy to improve their performance, recover from injuries, and prevent future injuries from occurring.

What to Expect

Describing the average sports massage can be challenging. Each session is tailored to meet the precise needs of the client. Still, most sports massage sessions are relatively intense. Your therapist may utilize myofascial release techniques, frictions, trigger point massage, and effleurage.

While most of these techniques are intense and can be mildly uncomfortable for the novice, effleurage is a soothing, slow-paced stroking technique used in Swedish massage therapy, and is often used to prepare the body for more rigorous work. Consequently, a sports massage may temporarily challenge your pain tolerance threshold, while also helping you to relax and recover.

Potential Benefits

If you’re an athletic person hoping to improve your performance and reduce your risk of injury, then sports massage therapy may be the best option. This kind of massage offers several potential benefits, including:

  • Increased flexibility
  • Reduced muscle tension
  • Better sleep
  • Decreased injury risks
  • Calmer nerves

While results may vary, these are the most commonly reported benefits of sports massage. Let’s take a closer look at these effects and discover how this massage might be advantageous. Athletes rely on joint mobility and muscle flexibility to perform well, so we’ll start there.

Increased Flexibility

One of the most significant challenges facing athletes is a loss of joint mobility and bodywide flexibility. Arthritis, a condition impacting the joints, affects over 50 million Americans. It can make once-enjoyable activities painful and uncomfortable. This condition is often associated with sedentary lifestyles, heart disease, and obesity.

Still, athletes that are consistently putting their bodies to the test may be more at risk of developing arthritis than others. As such, athletic individuals must take extra care to avoid overexerting themselves and risking joint injury. However, this can be challenging to do, especially when there’s overwhelming pressure to perform well.

Sports massage therapists may incorporate a variety of techniques to help clients experience increased joint mobility. These techniques may also stimulate muscle tissue, tendons, and ligaments, helping to increase their flexibility. When sports massage is performed regularly, before and after exercise, these benefits may be more noticeable.

Because flexibility and smooth movement are intrinsically linked, athletes should take every opportunity to strengthen their bodies and increase their flexibility. However, if your muscles are incredibly tense, they may also cause you to feel stiff and sluggish.

Reduced Muscle Tension

Muscle tension can be painful, uncomfortable, and physically limiting. Chronic muscle pain, also known as chronic myofascial pain (CMP), has several potential causes. Poor posture, overexertion, repetitive motions, and excess stress can contribute to the onset and continuation of muscle tension.

Sports massage may reduce muscle tension in several ways. Effleurage techniques can produce a calming effect, allowing the body to naturally de-clench and release stress. Penetrative deep tissue techniques can address pressure below the upper soft tissue layer.

Consequently, sports massage can be used to treat many different types of muscle tension, including the body’s skeletal muscle. While the techniques used to treat the deeper musculoskeletal layers can be painful, they’re often counteracted by gentler motions. This variation allows sports massage therapists to tackle many potential sources of muscle stress.

So, while Swedish massage may have gained a reputation for stress-relieving benefits, sports massage might not be too far behind. The litany of techniques that can be used during a sports massage lends it well to nearly any athlete, regardless of what may be causing their muscles to tense up.

Better Sleep

With approximately 33% of the adult population suffering from sleep deprivation, there’s never been a better time to focus on getting higher-quality rest. A lack of sleep can be devastatingly detrimental, especially for athletes. Particularly active individuals tend to burn more calories than those who are sedentary.

Consequently, they require diets with a higher caloric intake, and they also need plenty of rest. Without adequate sleep, an athlete’s body can begin to experience worrisome symptoms. If you don’t get enough sleep, you may struggle to remember things correctly, concentrate, or maintain balance.

Additionally, your cardiovascular and immune health may begin to suffer. Sleep deprivation can also contribute to high blood pressure, and you may find yourself making more mistakes when you’re fatigued. Scientists still don’t fully understand why we sleep or what happens while we’re sleeping, but one thing is for sure: we need to sleep to survive.

Sports massage can help relax the body, reduce muscle tension, and lower blood pressure. All of these individual effects can combine to help you fall asleep more quickly at night. While painful muscles and nerve endings could keep you awake, sports massage can handle that problem as well.

Decreased Injury Risk

While more research is necessary to confirm this particular benefit, there’s a substantial amount of anecdotal evidence supporting the idea that sports massage may help prevent future athletic injuries. This is why many therapists perform sports massage before and after vigorous exercise.

The concept behind sports massage’s ability to decrease athletic injuries is linked to a few benefits mentioned above. With greater flexibility comes a reduced risk of spraining a muscle or tearing a ligament. Sports massage can also boost the body’s circulation, which may decrease the risk of injury.

That’s because blood is the primary transport method of oxygen. When we breathe, oxygen enters our lungs and is transferred into the blood supply. This blood-borne oxygen feeds muscle tissue, keeping it healthy and strong. When muscles are starved of oxygen, they produce lactic acid.

A build-up of lactic acid can cause severe muscle pain. Keeping muscle tissue well-oxygenated can help prevent this situation, which is why sports massage may be an effective method of preventing unpleasant athletic injuries.

Calmer Nerves

Though a sports massage may temporarily increase your pain levels, you could notice a substantial decrease in pain after a day or two. This has everything to do with nerve function and muscle inflammation.

Nearly every sensation we experience is the result of nerve ending stimulation. When we experience physical pain or pleasure, we encounter a conversation between the nervous system and the brain. Our skin is chock-full of nerve endings, and even the slightest touch can set them off.

Sensitive nerve endings can make it difficult to perform simple actions and movements. When nerve endings become pinched by surrounding tissue, they can produce a flood of consistent pain signals. Getting these signals to stop often requires a reduction in tissue inflammation.

Massage therapy helps reduce muscle inflammation, thus freeing nerve endings from their cycle of pain. Sports massage can stimulate nerve endings, producing painful sensations, but the body is left feeling calmer when these signals fade.

Potential Drawbacks

The primary drawback of sports massage is pain. To work out tense muscle knots and help athletes recover more quickly, therapists tend to apply a moderate-to-heavy amount of pressure on sensitive trigger points along the body. This technique can be painful, which may counteract the relaxing aspect of sports massage. However, it is never the therapists intention to facilitate pain. It is important to communicate with your massage therapist to let them know how you are feeling in order to insure a comfortable session.

If you’re looking for a quick in-and-out massage session, sports massage may not be for you. Most sessions last between thirty minutes and can last upwards of a couple of hours, depending on the client’s needs and preferences.

Additionally, those who aren’t athletic may not benefit from sports massage as much as they might from Swedish massage, deep tissue massage, or trigger point massage. This kind of massage is specifically designed for athletes, and the average person may be better suited to other massage modalities.

What Is Thai Massage?

Thai massage is an ancient form of massage therapy that is several thousands of years old. Like Swedish massage, Thai massage is often praised for being incredibly soothing and relaxing. While most of the techniques and movements associated with Thai massage are quite gentle, some are far more intense.

Therapists that perform Thai massage often incorporate their whole bodies into the treatment process. As such, your therapist may use their elbows, knees, or even their body weight to compress, stretch, knead, and pull the client.

For some, this interaction may prove surprising or even uncomfortable. The type of client-therapist interchange that Thai massage provides isn’t familiar to most Western massage therapies. However, it is a notable facet of Eastern massage treatments.

History of Thai Massage

Thai massage has roots in ancient India and China. However, this massage’s specific techniques result from one man’s effort: Jivaka Kumar Bhaccha.

Bhaccha was a traditional healer and a practitioner of ancient medicinal techniques. He lived in India’s northeastern region, though his work and philosophies spread throughout East Asia, influencing Thai practices. Bhaccha was said to be the Buddha’s physician. He also tended to royalty.

This ancient physician (he lived over 2,000 years ago) is continually praised for his medicinal work. Many therapists that perform Thai massage say a prayer of thanks to Bhaccha before they begin each session. He’s lovingly known as the “Father Doctor” throughout Thailand.

Sadly, there’s not much known about how Bhaccha created Thai massage. The majority of his teachings were passed along in the oral tradition. Because Bhaccha lived so long ago, it’s challenging to determine how similar modern Thai massage is to the first ancient therapy.

Still, historians and therapists have agreed that modern Thai massage therapies have been heavily influenced by Traditional Chinese Medicine and local Thai customs.

What to Expect

Your first time getting a Thai massage can be a little overwhelming. When you arrive for your session, your therapist may hand you some loose-fitting garments to change into. This request can surprise many clients accustomed to Western massages, as there’s typically no clothing exchange.

If you feel uncomfortable with this request, you may want to wear loose, comfy clothing to your session. The therapist may guide you onto a thin mattress or a massage table, though some may prefer to work from the floor.

The massage therapist may then begin to pull, knead, and push against you. Not all Thai massage therapists speak fluent English, and you may feel uncomfortable with this lack of verbal communication. However, many therapists play soothing music during sessions, allowing you to relax and opt-out of making small talk.

Thai massage can be mildly uncomfortable, though this discomfort often pales in comparison to the types of sensations produced by other forms of massage therapy. Still, because Thai massage does feature a substantial amount of body manipulation and pressure-point stimulation, a few aches and pains after a session is relatively standard.

If you’re eager to experience a unique blend of relaxing massage and stimulating body movement, you might want to try Thai massage. Besides, there are plenty of advantages to this treatment worth some considering.

Potential Benefits

Thai massage employs an array of Eastern massage techniques, allowing it to provide distinct advantages and a unique experience. Individuals that decide to receive a Thai massage may experience a plethora of benefits, including:

  • Less stress
  • More energy
  • Increased circulation
  • Fewer tension headaches
  • Better flexibility

One of the critical aspects of Thai massage is body manipulation. While nearly all forms of massage therapy feature some type of manipulation (via stroking, kneading, etc.), Thai massage is one of the only forms of massage that seems to mimic yoga postures and positions.

It is a reasonably popular option among those searching to increase joint mobility and muscle flexibility while also reducing stress levels. Unlike Swedish massage, Thai massage won’t make you want to curl up and fall asleep. Instead, you might experience a welcome boost in energy levels.

Less Stress

Stress is a killer. It’s also one of the most pervasive mental and physical health issues in the United States. More than half of all Americans are directly affected by stress, and the consequences aren’t pretty. Stress can contribute to mental anguish, relationship problems, and significant health issues.

The human stress response was once vital to our survival, though its modern practicality is questionable. Early humans relied on the stress response to survive unexpected threats, such as predators or natural disasters. When a person encounters a stressor, which can be anything that initiates the stress response, they undergo a physiological change.

Blood pressure rises, the heart may begin to race, and the body is flooded with a slew of chemicals. Two of the most prominent of these substances are adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline causes the heart to beat faster and may provide a brief boost in energy. Cortisol can increase blood pressure, and it’s particularly harmful to the body over time.

Fortunately, there are several ways to counteract the effects of stress. One such method is massage therapy. Thai massage could help reduce anxiety and symptoms of depression thanks to its many calming techniques. However, this massage won’t lull you to sleep like a Swedish massage can. Thai massage could provide a much-needed surge of energy to keep your alert.

More Energy

Thai massage is a unique blend of soothing and energizing motions. Many people compare it to yoga, which makes sense when you consider the origins of Thai massage. Interestingly, this type of massage features a distinct belief in energy lines similar to the traditional Chinese belief in qi and meridians.

Generally, this philosophy can be described as a belief in invisible energy sources and conduits throughout the body. In Thai massage, these pathways are known as Sen Sib or the 10 Energy Lines. These routes facilitate the passage of energy (Prana). Thai massage often utilizes these pathways to produce specific healing effects.

As such, therapists may manipulate the body in ways thought to encourage energy production. They may use their bodies to pull, push, and compress their clients into various positions. Many of these positions mirror traditional energy-boosting yoga poses, particularly those that bend the spine.

Of course, an intense Thai massage may leave you feeling a bit stiff and sore. However, once this feeling dissipates, you’re bound to enjoy a pleasant increase in energy that may help you get through your day more efficiently and with a cheerful disposition.

Increased Circulation

No matter what type of massage therapy you end up selecting, there’s a good chance that it could help you enjoy a healthier cardiovascular system. Though many people think of blood vessels as weak, flexible tubes, they consist of smooth muscle tissue. This vascular smooth muscle can be manipulated, resulting in increased blood flow and decreased blood pressure.

Thai massage incorporates many motions and techniques not found in other types of massage therapy. In fact, Thai massage is more engaging than some of the more relaxing, less-involved treatments. During this type of massage, the body is continuously pulled into motion or stimulated with rhythmic massage techniques.

The combination of these movements could result in increased circulation. Poor circulation is associated with heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and several other health conditions. Taking excellent care of your heart might be a nifty way of adding a few years onto your life, so engaging in Thai massage could literally be a life-saver.

The number one cause of death in the United States is heart disease, so it’s always a good idea to do as much as you can to maintain excellent cardiovascular health. Besides, Thai massage could also help you avoid agonizing tension headaches. 

Young man and woman dressed in a white robe doing thai massage with yoga exercises sitting on the grass. Sunny summer park with green lawn in the background

Fewer Tension Headaches

Tension headaches are frustrating, painful, and challenging to treat with over-the-counter medications. While traditional painkillers like aspirin or ibuprofen can reduce some of the painful symptoms of tension headaches, they don’t do much to prevent them from reoccurring.

Stress is the most common cause of tension headaches. More directly, muscle tension and anxiety that results from stress can cause tension headaches. To prevent them, you may need to adopt stress-reducing coping methods like meditation or massage therapy.

Thai massage therapy may reduce muscle tension and lower stress levels, thereby preventing future stress-induced headaches.

Better Flexibility

As with sports massage, Thai massage could significantly improve your flexibility. Considering how many different poses a massage therapist might pull and push you into, this benefit makes absolute sense. Therapists that are trained in Thai massage manipulate the body in this way to increase joint mobility and overall flexibility.

Still, it’s essential to note that Thai massage could leave you feeling a little achy, sore, and stiff. These sensations typically only last about a day or two, and when they fade away, you may begin to appreciate your improved mobility more fully.

Potential Drawbacks

There are some potential risks involved with Thai massage. Individuals with osteoarthritis or cardiovascular disease are discouraged from engaging in Thai massage. Consulting with your private physician can help you determine how safe this massage therapy might be for you.

Pregnant women may also want to consult with their doctor before opting for a Thai massage. The unique techniques employed in Thai massage could be harmful when improperly applied, so it’s crucial to communicate any pre-existing conditions or risks with your therapist before attending your first session.

While Thai massage may not be as intense as deep tissue massage or sports massage, it can produce mild pain and stiffness. These painful sensations often disappear on their own for a day or two. If you prefer, you could choose to use over-the-counter painkillers to counteract this brief discomfort.

Which Is Better Between Sports Massage and Thai Massage?

Sports massage and Thai massage are two very different kinds of therapy. As such, comparing them is tricky. Both options provide some similar benefits, like increased flexibility, but they also differ significantly.

Firstly, sports massage is designed to treat athletic injuries. It can be mildly painful, though it may also help athletes experience shorter recovery times and decreased risk of injury. Thai massage is a far more relaxed type of massage therapy.

However, a Thai massage can also have a few intense moments, even if it’s considered more soothing than sports massages. The best option for you depends on your specific needs and preferences. If you’ve been looking for a slightly more intense version of Swedish massage, then Thai massage might be an excellent option.

If you’re hoping to receive optimal athletic care, it may be worthwhile to invest in regular sports massages. The final decision between these two treatments rests in your hands.


Sports massage is a type of treatment designed specifically for athletes. Some of the most notable benefits of sports massage include decreased muscle tension, calmer nerves, and reduced risk of developing an injury. Sports massages are typically performed before and after strenuous exercise.

Thai massage incorporates a wide variety of techniques, some of which aren’t often found in Western massage therapies. During a Thai massage, your masseuse may pull, push, or knead your muscles. They may also use their feet, elbows, and knees to release muscle tension and encourage better circulation.

Richard A. Lehman, LMT, CSCS

Compliment Your Body, LLC
1441 Broadway #6087
New York, NY. 10018
(646) 868-8956

Compliment Your Body has been providing corporate chair massage and in-home massage therapy to New York City and the surrounding boroughs since 2004. We are local to New York City and pride ourselves on our team of local therapists. All of our therapists are hand-picked and thoroughly vetted. We don’t hire over the phone, we meet our team on the field.

Compliment Your Body believes that care is a circle. We care for our team, our team cares for the participants, and we all care for the community!

For every single in-home or chair massage, Compliment donates three meals to a New Yorker in need through our relationship with Food Bank For New York City.

Commitment – Compassion – Connection – Charity

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Richard A. Lehman, LMT, CSCS, owner and CEO of Compliment Your Body, LLC has over fifteen years of experience in the health and wellness field. During his career he has worked in a multitude of settings, including spas, chiropractic offices, and on the field at IronMan competitions. Richard was hired in 2005 with the United States Tennis Association as a Massage Therapist and provided therapy to the professional athletes at the US Open Tennis Championships from 2005 - 2010. Richard graduated in 2004 from The Swedish Institute College of Health Sciences. He is a National Strength and Conditioning Association Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. He also completed the Plant Based Nutrition course at the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies and is a Level 2 Nutrition Coach with Precision Nutrition. Compliment Your Body has been providing corporate / event massage therapy, and in-home massage therapy to New York City and the surrounding boroughs for over fifteen years, and has been the corporate massage provider to the New York Times throughout this time. Commitment, compassion, connection and charity are the pillars of our business. Experience the CYBNYC difference!

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