When it comes to soft-tissue work, the most important thing is to find what works for you, so don’t get caught up in hot trends. “Whatever you’re doing should make you feel better, not worse,” says Bryan Hill, owner of Rehab United, “Everybody’s different.”
Secondly, you need a good practitioner who understands your sport and has access to as many different tools as necessary, according to Chappy Wood, a chiropractor who also uses ART, massage, Graston and lasers on his athletes. So ask around for recommendations. A growing number of full-service facilities are also offering a comprehensive look at an athlete before providing a variety of these soft-tissue techniques in one place.
The most classic soft-tissue technique, massage is a go-to for any athlete “as much as you can within your budget,” says Wood. Basic deep-tissue massage works when a therapist uses his or her hands to systematically flush out the lactic buildup in muscles, break up adhesions or knots, and stimulate blood flow.
When should I use it? Professional athletes get massages regularly and after hard sessions or races, but never deep- tissue before a race because it typically creates soreness.
Active Release Technique is growing in popularity as an alternative form of soft-tissue work. The technique uses very localised (and intense) pressure and movement to work through targeted scar tissue and adhesions that create tightness and injury.
When should I use it? Treatment (performed by a chiropractor) is often intense and can leave bruising, so most athletes use it to treat a specific injury, such as IT band syndrome, or to nip recurring tightness and aches in the bud. However, Hill says more athletes are starting to work it into a regular recovery/prevention programme.
As opposed to hands-on techniques, Graston uses a series of small (and scary-looking) tools to break up scar tissue and loosen muscles. Though many practitioners will use the tools to dig into tight muscles, the technique is actually very specific, says Hill. A quick, repetitive motion brushes over the muscle/tendon junction to create heat and elasticity, encouraging healing and stretching tissues and fibres.
When should I use it? Ideally Graston causes less soreness than deep-tissue work but can still create bruising. Many people also find the sensation of metal rubbing over their skin unnerving, so don’t try it right before a race.
“Weakness causes tightness,” says Megan Leyba, education director for the Muscle Activation Technique main clinic in Colorado, and tightness leads to injury. MAT attempts to address muscular weakness by starting with a range-of-motion test and then applying pressure at the muscle attachment points to get those weak muscles firing. A follow-up test checks to see if the muscles work better after treatment.
When should I use it? Most athletes come to MAT after an injury. But it can be used on an ongoing basis as a check-and-balance on weak muscles or for any kind of muscular issue, according to Leyba.
Perhaps the most obscure of the soft-tissue techniques, Rolfing Structural Integration focuses on the sheathes and connective tissue surrounding muscles, called fascia. Rolfers use hand manipulation and patient breathing to lengthen the fascia. Elasticity then creates better posture and alignment.
When should I use it? Rolfing is typically done in a 1 0-session series, moving from superficial layers to core tissue to total body integration. It is most often done holistically to resolve overall aches and pains.