Sh!t Massage Therapists Say: Hung Up on Hydration

For countless generations of massage therapists, clients have heard a familiar refrain: be sure to drink lots of water after your massage to flush out those toxins!

This is a phrase I have heard parroted by new massage students, seasoned massage therapists, even clients who try to predict what I’m going to say after a massage. Sometimes, when reading SOAP documentation from other therapists, it is the ONLY advice given as homework/self care. We repeat this refrain out of… habit? Fear of not seeming legit to your client or employer? Fear of doing something other than every other massage therapist before you? Where did this even come from?? I have been scouring all of my massage therapy textbooks and I cannot, for the life of me, find the part where it says this.

smarty-pants textbooks

smarty-pants textbooks

Now, don’t get me wrong- drinking water is SUPER GOOD FOR YOU AND IMPORTANT TO CONSUME. So much so, you can’t live for more than 3 days without it- just ask the participants on “Naked and Afraid”! It is generally my preferred beverage (behind wine and coffee). But for the purposes of recovery after a massage (and, for that matter, recovery from what brought you in for a massage in the first place), “drinking lots of water” is about as helpful as “breathe plenty of air” or “look both ways before you cross the street”.

YOU ARE NOT TOXIC

Ok, maybe a little, but on a day to day basis, your kidneys and liver do a super great job of keeping you from looking like The Toxic Avenger.

Oh, Toxie.

Toxie is probably just thirsty, right?

While water does help to escort any “toxins” (uugh, don’t even get me started on how much I hate that word) and waste products out of your body, “flushing” your system by downing a gallon of water is akin to over-watering your lawn: you wouldn’t just dump buckets of water out in your yard and call it a day, right? No, that would disrupt the nutrients in the soil and the roots’ ability to hold on to the ground, so you gently sprinkle water over the lawn for some time. This is also how you should consume water- throughout the day when you are thirsty, through non-water beverages, and through foods containing water (basically everything but saltines.).

Experts tend to agree that a) they don’t know where this “8x8oz glasses per day” recommendation came from and b) normal people living normal lives need about one to one and a half liters per day (including food), more if you are losing fluids due to heat/sweat and/or exertion, to maintain good health.  I’ve had the privilege of volunteering at the finish line of IronMan Wisconsin, and let me tell you, when an athlete is dehydrated and cramping, he is handed a cup of salty chicken broth and instructed to sip slowly, not a gallon of water to chug.

YOU ARE (PROBABLY) NOT DEHYDRATED

A few years ago, this guy wrote a book (since shown to be not all that science-y) that got everybody freaked out about not drinking enough water. So we all bought nice water bottles and now dutifully drink up when we are hungry/tired/allergic/whatever. I know we’ve all gone on the kick where you decide you are going to drink massive amounts of water during the day because it is “healthy”, but where did it get you? Feeling thirsty, cold, and peeing all day? Yeah, thought so.

When you drink too much water, you are also changing your electrolyte balance and “rinsing” out any water-soluble vitamins and nutrients along the way, many of which are helpful in repairing the muscle that we just worked on in your massage, or that help facilitate a proper muscle contraction. You are continually cooling your body as well, so you are less able to hold on to heat (and probably scrunching your shoulders up to your ears  and tightening all your muscles to stay warm!) Your body also turns off production of the hormones that say “hold on to this water!”, which is why you’re running to the bathroom every 30 minutes.

It’s all about balance– extremes are rarely helpful.

WHAT TO DO AFTER A MASSAGE THAT WILL ACTUALLY BE HELPFUL

Look, advising someone to drink “lots of water” isn’t usually going to hurt them (unless they have heart or kidney disease), and it can be helpful in cases of things like rheumatoid arthritis, headaches, or constipation. But drinking water after a massage is not going to “flush toxins”, improve recovery, or prevent soreness. It is not the best (and definitely should not be the ONLY) advice we can give to our clients. Here are some better things you can try:

  • Get regular massage! Seriously- this one is the easiest.
  • Move! Get some moderate exercise- go for a walk, have a kitchen dance party, do that yoga video you like…
  • Stretch! Look up stretches on YouTube, ask your trainer for help, go to a yoga class, spend 5 minutes after you wake up to knock the cobwebs off.
  • Breathe! A few times a day, like when you’re waiting at a stop light or when your coworker goes out for a smoke break, pay attention to your breathing for a few minutes. Exhale longer.
  • Strengthen weak/locked-long muscles! Massage therapists can’t prescribe exercise, but we sure can tell you what needs work, and that’s information you can talk about with your trainer or PT! Those weak muscles are likely contributing to your pain and causing posture and movement inefficiencies. Fix it!
  • Use hot or cold! Inflamed tissue that has acute pain or feels like it’s “on fire”? Throw some ice on it for 10-15 minutes. General feeling of “tight muscles”, chronic dull pain, or feels like it “needs to stretch”? Put a hot pack on it for a while, or take a hot bath. Tight muscles looooove heat!
  • Find ways to manage your stress! Meditate, do a hobby you love,  work on an adult coloring book, do some exercise you like, take a hot bath, have lunch with a good friend, watch a movie that makes you laugh….
  • Get some sleep! Real, actual sleep helps your body and mind repair, and regular massage might help you sleep better. Maybe it’s time to look into a new mattress or pillow, too.
  • Do your physical therapy! I know, it’s not always fun, but if you have been prescribed PT, DO IT. They go to WAY more school than us.
  • Eat a delicious dinner! Get some nutrients in you to repair any damaged tissue we are working on.
  • Talk to your doctor! If your client isn’t seeing improvements in their condition, maybe it’s not muscular.
  • Quit your job! Just kidding… but my retired clients sure are a lot happier. 😉

Massage is so much more than what happens on the table- if we can give our clients better advice on how to continue the benefits of massage in between sessions, we can start to see real progress, and massage will continue to gain traction in the realm of complementary medicine.

Hey Jess, didn’t you just give me a glass of water after my massage though?

I’m not a monster, you guys. 😉

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