Top track masseur: “women have a much higher pain threshold than the men”

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Andy Miller’s healing hands have pushed, shoved and cajoled the likes of Ato BoldonMaurice Greene and 2009 world champion Brigitte Foster-Hylton (above) to glory.

SPIKES chats to the top US massage therapist about accidentally elbowing Andreas Thorkildsen, and why women are the toughest athletes on the treatment table.

You are known as one of the world’s most successful massage therapists. How did you get into athletics?

“It started way back in college when my room-mate was a sprinter. Later, when I moved out to work in Saudi Arabia I worked with basketball players but the guy I worked closely with at the basketball club later moved to the track and field federation, so it was a natural switch for me.

“I became much more closely involved at Gothenburg 1995 [the World Championships]. I stopped off briefly there in transit to Amsterdam and met John Smith [the coach], Ato Boldon and Emanuel Hudson [the agent], who I had known back in college. They had one or two problems with their massage therapist at the time, and it was natural that I started working with them.

"I spent a year on the circuit with the HSI [sports management company] sprinters [which included Boldon] and decided to leave Saudi Arabia and then really make my mark in track and field, after the Atlanta Olympics in 1996.” 

What are trying to achieve as a massage therapist?

“You are trying to make the muscle tissues relax, so they will slide instead of grabbing. You try to make the tissue slide vertically and also increase the lubrication between the muscles to avoid cramps or tears.”

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Big boys: Both Ato Boldon and Mo Greene have benefited from Andy Miller’s handiwork

How long do you work on the athletes?

“It varies. After practise I might work 30-40mins with an athlete. Before the meet, it might only be about five minutes worth of stretching and five minutes of mobilisation.

“If the athlete has no particular spot which feels tight, I’m not going to mess with them because the more work you put into a muscle the more energy you take out.  I’ll do more of my work the night before a race or the night after a race. I want them to go to the line with as much energy in their muscle as possible.”

Can you explain the strain you put in your hands?

“Because of the pressure you need to use to get into the tissue, the same pressure you put into the person comes back into your joints. So I used to have to ice my thumbs and elbows after a long day’s work. I say ‘used to’ because a friend of mine who runs a chiropractors in Canada has invented a new soft tissue tool. This has made a huge difference, as it has made the experience 80 per cent less painful for me, and 80 per cent less painful to the athlete. My athletes are happier and I’m happier. It has been a great combination.” 

Do you have to treat sprinters and distance runners differently?

“The primary difference is muscle density. Sprinters do a lot of work in the weight room to build muscle mass, and they often get repetitive stress injuries from the weight load they are using. A distance runner, because they are taking 10,000 to 12,000 steps a day, pick up their repetitive stress injuries from a much lower weight load.”

“The way I treat them is pretty much the same but I don’t go in as deep with the distance runners, because they don’t have as much tissue.” 

Do the sprinters have the highest pain threshold?

“Yes. And the women have a much higher pain threshold than the men. The women hurdlers, in particular, are a tough breed. The likes of Anjanette Kirkland [2001 world 100m hurdles champion] and Brigitte Foster-Hylton [2009 world 100m hurdles champion] were very tough.

“A few males I work with won’t budge or move a muscle when I treat them. Andreas Thorkildsen [double Olympic javelin champion] is one of the few guys who asks me to work harder on him. He’s a tough guy, although I took his breath away last month when I went into his IT [Iliotibial] band with my elbow.” [Ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch]

What has been your biggest success?

“That’s a hard question. I’d probably say the Athens Olympics, when I worked with 14 medallists like Veronica Campbell-Brown [200m and 4x100m champion], Francis Obikwelu [100m silver], Debbie Ferguson-McKenzie [200m bronze] and Kenenisa Bekele [10,000m champion and 5000m runner-up].” 

You have worked with athletes from many different sports. Just how fit are track and field athletes?

“I think they are some of the fittest in the world. A good baseball player has a body fat percentage of maybe 12-15 per cent but a top track athlete has four or five per cent. Baseball players and American footballers can also balloon in weight during the off-season but a track athlete can’t afford to do that.”

How significant is your role in an athletes’ success?

“Maybe I contribute 10 to 20 per cent. Their coaches contribute 60-70 per cent. Still, it is important to keep the body maintained and to be able to do the workouts, which allows an athlete to take their body to the next threshold. It is super-satisfying to help athletes reach the top of their sport.”