When injuries happen, all too often I find athletes self-treating by stretching and foam rolling, hoping that will be the answer to their problems. And all to often that method does not work. In fact, it rarely works.
I am not saying stretching and foam rolling are pointless (OK, foam rolling basically is), but unless you utilize them for their purpose, you are wasting your valuable time and delaying your recovery to pain-free activity.
Stretching, in itself, is not a bad thing to do. If the muscles are restricted, then you may need to loosen them up, but there are a several places where people fall short when it comes to stretching.
First off, especially with chronic tightness like many people feel in the hamstrings and calves, you need to ask yourself ‘why’ the tightness is there. Tightness does not just happen because the muscles decide one day that they are going to be tight and stay tight. Chronic tightness happens because it is assisting your body in some way – and normally not for a good reason. If you do not take time to fix the ‘why’, you can stretch all you want, but you will not get the results you are looking for.
Chronic tightness often occurs because an area is weak and does not know how to stabilize itself. The only way the body knows to stabilize itself in the area is by tightening up the muscles. You can stretch the muscles all you want, but until you train the body how to support and stabilize itself, the area is going to continue tightening up.
Another reason tightness occurs is due to overuse caused by joint mobility deficits. For instance, if the ankles are stiff (as most people’s are), the muscles in the lower leg need to work harder to get the ankle to move to allow you to do what you want to do. The small muscles being overworked can create tightness in the area. It is your body telling you to fix something!
Now, as I said in the beginning, stretching, in itself, is not a bad thing to do if you utilize it properly.
Personally, I am a fan of doing active stretching rather than passive. Meaning, you are isometrically contracting the muscle at end range to teach the body to control that end range rather than just passively holding it.
If you choose to passively stretch, that’s fine, but you need to actively teach the body to use and control the motion after you are done stretching. Without doing that, the body will just go back to the range that it is comfortable in and knows it is safe in.
To put it bluntly, foam rolling to loosen up any area of the body is pointless and a waste of time. A foam roller can never get deep enough or aggressive enough to do anything to loosen up restricted tissues.
What you are actually doing when foam rolling is stimulating nerve fibers. That stimulation is providing you a brief perception that things have loosened up. That is why after you roll out you often feel the area tightening back up within an hour or so.
Something a foam roller can be helpful for, but not necessary for, is stimulating the nerve fibers prior to activity to assist with muscle firing. Ever watch sprinters slap their legs prior to a race? That is to stimulate the nerves, and therefore the muscles, to be ready to go. The foam roller can act on the same nerve fibers if you utilize it very briefly right before activity. In my opinion, though, the slapping the legs is a fast and easy method to utilize whenever needed. It is the method I utilize prior to heavy lifts or sprints.
So, to close this out. Stop passively stretching. Stop foam rolling. Start doing the things to figure out why your body is tight and fix that! Only then will your issues resolve.
Are you ready to fix your issues, but not sure where to start? Schedule a FREE discovery call with Dr. Brianne Showman to get you on your way.
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