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.
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?
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.