As a regular runner, I am no stranger to the world of sports recovery. I go for a 4-mile run a few mornings per week and usually do one longer run on the weekends, so I’m constantly stretching and foam rolling on my living room rug. I also used to get an hour-long deep-tissue massage about once a month at this great place in my neighborhood that charges $45 for 60 minutes. After all, it’s no secret that massage is a go-to recovery technique for athletes, including runners.
Some research suggests that after strenuous exercise, massage may help alleviate delayed-onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, and improve muscle performance. Other research shows that massage seems to be useful for reducing perceived fatigue post-workout. If you talk to any pro or college-level athlete about their recovery routines, they’ll likely say that regular massages are part of their overall plan. I personally feel like my muscles are looser, more relaxed, and just feel better overall when I get regular massages. (Like all recovery techniques, though, it’s hard to say what will definitely make a difference from person to person, and some benefits may be simply due to placebo effect—which still counts for something.)
After a recent trip to Thailand, I added a new type of massage to my recovery routine: Thai massage.
I was lucky enough to be invited on a two-week trip sponsored by the Thailand Tourism Board, during which I got nine massages (it’s a hard job, I know). Each massage helped my jet-lagged, sore body feel much better. I felt looser, freer, and seriously stretched out, and my only regret was not trying Thai massage sooner.
I’d seen Thai massage offered all over the place in the U.S.—it’s pretty widespread here, especially in large cities like New York—but I hadn’t ever thought to actually get one, not to mention get one for the purpose of running recovery. Now, I’m so glad I finally gave it a try, and wish I had sooner.
Thai massage is an ancient therapy that’s been practiced in Thailand for several centuries.
It’s thought to have been developed along with Thai medicine by the legendary physician Shivago Komarpaj—often referred to as the Father Doctor by Thai healers—about 2,500 years ago. Komparaj was a personal physician to Buddha, which makes sense because Thai massage is very closely associated with Buddhism, explains Lapatrada Pittayakorn, spa manager at Nitra Spa & Wellness at 137 Pillars Suites & Residences Bangkok, one of the hotels where I stayed on my trip.
“The massage technique was an integral part of the Buddhist religion, and although Buddhism itself took four centuries to reach Thailand, the method of massage quickly gained popularity among the Thai people,” Pittayakorn says. “Thai massage is, in fact, so closely associated to Buddhism that traditionally, practitioners must say a prayer in Palo, the ancient sacred language of Theravada Buddhism, to Thai massage’s credited creator before they start working each day.”
Aside from Buddhism, Thai massage was also heavily influenced by Ayurvedic practices in India, and traditional Chinese medicine, too. “Due to its strategic location between India and China, Thailand witnessed a continuous flow of people, ideas, and traditional medicine from both countries, and was influenced in many ways by each of them. For example, anyone with knowledge of yoga can easily see the influence and similarity of its movements with those of Thai massage,” Pittayakorn explains.
During a Thai massage treatment, which is often referred to as Thai yoga, practitioners actively stretch you—often even sitting on top of you to do so.
And I’ve gotta say, the whole sitting on top of you thing can be quite jarring at first, especially if you’re not prepared for it. I certainly wasn’t.
When I got my first Thai massage, I was still super jetlagged and hadn’t really read up on what Thai massage actually was before entering the room. That meant that I went in expecting some form of a deep-tissue massage, where I’d be doused in oil and then massaged to sleep, potentially with a couple hot stones thrown in for good measure.
But oh, how wrong I was! Although the atmosphere in the room was very relaxing—soft spa music playing in the background, a trickling waterfall perched in the corner, and the sweet, sweet smells of lemongrass and jasmine wafting in the air—I was decidedly not massaged into a lazy, comatose state of sleepytime bliss. Instead, my therapist instructed me to lie down on my stomach, and before I knew what was happening, she was sitting on top of me, pulling and cracking my arms in all directions. There is also no oil involved in Thai massage.
“Yes, during a Thai massage, you will be pulled, stretched, and rocked at the hands of your massage therapist,” explains Pittayakorn. “They will use every part of their body in order to do this, including their thumbs, elbows, and knees—it’s a completely different approach from what most Westerners are used to.”
I’ll say. Throughout that first massage, I continued to be surprised. This, my friends, was no time for sleep. One moment my therapist would be sitting on my butt, and then the next, she’d be asking me to sit up so she could pull and stretch my arms and legs in surprising directions. A couple times, I even had to ask her to go more gently, as she was using quite a lot of force to pull on my limbs. “Thai massages are certainly not gentle, and it is important to note that oftentimes, they can feel unpleasant. But as soon as you tell your therapist that you are feeling any pain, they will decrease the pressure right away,” Pittayakorn says. Thankfully, my therapist did.
Another difference between deep-tissue massage and Thai massage is the clothing situation. For most of the massages I got on my Thailand trip, I actually wore loose-fitting clothes provided by the spa, as opposed to going full-on naked like I do during deep-tissue massages. The outfits were sort of like hospital scrubs—loose cotton tops and drawstring pants. They also provided disposable underwear. That said, not all of the spas provided clothes, as it really does vary by spa. (They all gave out the disposal underwear, though, so the times I wasn't given clothing, I just wore those.) The Thai massages I’ve gotten since I've been back in New York have been fully clothed, likely because I’ve chosen to go to very traditional Thai spas, like Fifth Avenue Thai Spa in Manhattan.
Although I didn’t fall asleep during that first massage like I usually do, afterward, I felt more relaxed and refreshed than ever.
I’ll admit that because I didn't do any research beforehand on Thai massage or the culture behind it, I was a bit bummed at the start of my first one. Since I didn't know what to expect, there ended up being a big difference between my expectations and reality. But once I got off the table feeling more relaxed and refreshed than usual—thanks to how loose my muscles felt from the intense stretching—I walked out of there a true convert, at once humbled by my initial ignorance and excited for my next treatment.
“The passive stretching in Thai massage is truly wonderful for loosening up the limbs and creating a feeling of freedom in the body,” explains Phoebe Boonkerd, a naturopathic and massage practitioner in Thailand and the director of wellness operations and development at Amatara Wellness Resort, another place where I got a massage. The stretching can be a bit surprising for those who are used to Swedish or deep tissue massages like I was, “but it leaves the receiver feeling extremely relaxed and alive, and it’s also very helpful for tiredness, body stiffness, and muscle soreness,” Boonkerd continues.
There’s some debate in the fitness world about whether or not stretching is truly beneficial for everyone—and what the extent of the benefits are. But I can say that I personally experienced what Boonkerd describes. Thai massage made my muscles feel looser, and after a handful of them, I felt like I could move more freely and with a better range of motion. And as a runner, I really appreciated that.
I’ve been back from Thailand for a couple months now, and I’ve already gotten a few Thai massages in New York. I plan to keep up this new habit in the future. Sure, there are many ways to practice recovery, including foam rolling and other types of sports massages, but it’s nice to know that I can officially add this new player into my rotation.