If you want to stay on top of your exercise game, stretching out your muscles may not be enough. That’s because your fascia—not your muscle—may be the culprit behind your soreness, pain and restricted movement.
Your what? Fascia is a connective tissue that surrounds all muscles (like webbing) and is made up of layers of collagen and water molecules. Essentially, it’s a protective structure for your muscles that holds everything in place. Over time—from chronic dehydration, inactivity and, in women, hormonal changes—the tissue can lose water and become sticky and matted, leading to tightness, pain and restricted movement. Drinking plenty of water will help restore some “glide,” but stretching your fascia is known to be the key to unkinking.
Enter Rolfing, a hands-on therapy that’s been around since the ’70s (named after American biochemist Ida Rolf, PhD), but is now becoming mainstream, according to Carole LaRochelle, a San Francisco-based Rolfer who’s worked with professional athletes and yoga teachers. It also doesn’t hurt that Rolfing has high-profile fans like Dr. Oz, Courtney Love and Diane Lane.
The goal of Rolfing therapy is to loosen the connective tissues, or fascia, that have become rigid. The practitioner uses deep tissue massage techniques to “separate” (i.e., release) tight fibers wrapping the bones; the manipulations create pulling and tugging sensations. The treatment is especially popular with athletes with chronic pain. “I’ve treated fascia that’s felt like dried-out shoe leather, or a body stocking under the skin that’s one size too small,” says LaRochelle. According to her, manipulating the tissues not only makes them more elastic, but also better able to rehydrate—in the same way a sponge absorbs more water after it’s been squeezed out.
With all of the squeezing and prodding, Rolfing may not be as soothing as a Swedish massage, “but it shouldn’t be excruciating”, says Mary Bond, a Rolfing therapist and author of The New Rules of Posture. Of course, part of the pain may be the price. Rolfing, which is typically done in a 10-session protocol (spaced from one to two weeks apart), runs $100 and up per session. But you can also unkink your fascia yourself.
Cylindrically shaped foam rollers, which you can find by the stretching mats in your gym, come in different foam densities and lengths. If you’re considering purchasing your own roller, they’re easy to find online and range in price from $3 for a basic model to about $40 for a longer, high-density version (which lasts longer).
To mimic Rolfing with a foam roller, lay your body across the cylinder and roll slowly back and forth over tight areas, such as thighs, hamstrings, calves, glutes or shoulders. Avoid rolling on joints and putting pressure around the neck or bruises. Also, stay away from the back side of the knee and the inside of the leg near the groin, and go easy when rolling along the hamstring area where the large sciatic nerve runs.
In doing this, you increase blood flow to those tight areas and help break up knots, or “hot spots,” says Steve Barrett, fitness pro and author of Total Foam Rolling Techniques. You won’t get as deep into your fascia with a roller as a Rolfer can with her hands, but you will get some relief. According to Barrett, after rolling, you should feel like you’ve given yourself a sports massage—less tight and more relaxed.
Many pros say less is more with rollers. Sawing back and forth over the same hot spot can actually backfire—the body may tense up even more in a protective reaction, according to Adam Mentzel of The Rolf Institute of Structural Integration in Colorado, who also cautions that nerves can be compressed and irritated against underlying bone.
If you really want to go easy on yourself, consider a memory foam roller— created by manual therapist Sue Hitzmann, founder of the MELT Method. As Hitzmann explains, her body roller (about $90, including DVDs) is smaller and softer than typical foam ones. “It simulates the work that I learned to do with my hands by gently compressing and stimulating the muscles to rehydrate and repair the connective tissue.” And according to Hitzmann, this may even reduce the appearance of cellulite. Yet another reason to get rolling.