Water, Water, Everywhere: the unkillable hydration myth


I can nearly guarantee you’ve heard it before: “Make sure you drink extra water after your massage, or you’ll get sore!” This myth has been propagated with equal passion by massage therapists, clients, and instructors alike, but it’s been shown repeatedly to be untrue. Where did the myth come from, and why won’t it just die?

The Trouble With Toxins

One of the reasons given for the importance of drinking extra water after a massage goes like this: massage releases toxins from muscle tissue, so extra water is needed to flush them away, or they’ll build up. Most folks who espouse this position are pretty murky on what they mean by “toxin.” While there are plenty of legitimate toxins in the world (as you’d quickly discover if you decided to drink a glass of commercial pesticide, for example), drinking an extra glass of H2O wouldn’t do you much good if this sort of toxin was suddenly released into your bloodstream.

More often than not, people are probably referring to cellular byproducts when they talk about toxins in this context. Of course, if you ask them what kinds of byproducts they’re referring to, they generally can’t name them. But if they can, it’s almost always the same celebrity name: lactic acid.

For nearly 100 years, lactic acid has been viewed as the muscular bogeyman. An experiment in the early 1900s showed that dead frog legs that had been shocked with electricity to make them jump until they couldn’t jump anymore contained lactic acid. The conclusion? Lactic acid makes muscles stop working. Surprisingly, nobody challenged this for years.

So where’s the connection with massage? Even worse science: if we assume that lactic acid makes muscles sore, and massage makes muscles feel better, then massage must get rid of lactic acid, right? And since the lactic acid clearly isn’t leaking out of our pores, it must be going into the bloodstream, where a glass of water will help to wash it away.

There are so many logical holes in this argument that it’s absurd. But two bits of research recently showed that not only is it faulty thinking, it’s also just wrong. Because massage therapy inhibits the removal of lactic acid from muscle tissue. Which is just fine, because it turns out that lactic acid is muscle food, not muscle poison.

Dehydration Fears

The second idea behind asking clients to drink extra water is that a firm massage stimulates the muscles, just like exercise does. If you don’t drink additional water, you’ll become dehydrated and suffer the physical consequences.

This theory has a tiny nugget of truth to it, but it neglects the fact that “extra” is totally arbitrary. Should a well-hydrated person go out of their way to drink more water than is comfortable for them just because they’ve had a massage? In truth, most people will know whether they’ve become dehydrated, because they’ll feel thirsty. If a client doesn’t feel like they need to drink water following massage, why push them to do so?

Common Courtesy

There’s one really good reason to offer clients water after a massage: it’s polite. In our culture, offering someone a small drink or snack is a mark of thoughtfulness that engenders positive thoughts. But be sure to be honest with your clients: “because I like you” is different from “because your muscles will suffer if you don’t.”

In short:  drink when you’re thirsty, and your body will thank you. Also, kill massage fairy tales when you hear them, and the world will be a better, more educated place.

  • derrick hachey

    I find that a banana or 2 helps my muscles recover more quickly than by extra hydration…

  • E.A. Weymuller

    I’ve left many a massage hearing the final words of “be sure to drink extra water today”, but almost never do. Interestingly, after a massage I usually sleep very well the following night. Sure would be a shame to waste such peaceful sleep with multiple trips to the loo…

  • Here’s what I have to say about it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gwTDw1kXpo8

  • Love this. I’m so tired of the lactic acid/toxin shenanigans. I expect to hear it from clients, they don’t know any better. But MT’s should know better by now.

    • If this is the truth of the matter, and I’m sure it probably is, why the hell are massage schools preaching this as LMT gospel? Personally, I never bothered w/ the idea of handing my clients a bottle/cup/glass of water to complement the ‘have a good day and come back soon routine’. I hate drinking water, tap or bottled, and view it as hypocritical behavior on my part, to expect my clients to do something I refuse to do myself.

      • I’ve found that the massage schools this old-school BS are the same one with crappy curriculums and/or teachers who are not reading current journals, etc.

      • Guest

        I read a blog post about an instructor who quit after one term because, even though the school did not buy into this, they required it to be taught in the curriculum. I wish I could remember where I read it, but it makes me wonder about our industry.

        • I went to what they call the ‘Harvard’ of massage schools, and we were taught to offer people water. Medical/clinical massage therapists and medical professionals know that drinking plenty of fluids and keeping hydrated is common sense. If anything, the recommendation to drink water right after makes the most sense; you’re most likely to flush out what was just circulated at this point in time. I have observed the color of my urine in the time that passes after a massage. It is generally darker afterwards than if I had waited the same amount of time and not gotten a massage. Makes sense to help it along with a bit of water afterwards.

  • Constance

    We need more articles like this one. Lots more. I read a related article about a therapist who gave up her teaching position after one quarter because she was tired of being REQUIRED to feed students these lies.

  • I don’t disagree with any of the factual statements in this article, however anyone who has had a number of deep/therapeutic massages (and is thus an experienced client) can tell you that they felt better if they drank plenty of water than if they were negligent about it.

    I’ve never heard a therapist say ‘drink more than normal’.. they/we generally suggest to people to drink what they are supposed to drink, which is a ratio that averages out to be 8 cups a day for people – and of which most people do not complete in a typical day. Most people ARE dehydrated. The more water you drink, the more substances are flushed out. It’s not rocket science.

    Also, it is not lactic acid that keeps the muscles stiff, although pyruvic acid (which it converts to) does play a role. Just because people colloquially have the wrong acid in mind, it does not mean they’re wrong in a sense. To a toxicologist, metabolic wastes ARE toxins, btw.