Is the Secret to Recovery Something Called Rolfing?

Rolfing: What It Is and How It Helps Recovery
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Recovery has been a top priority of the fitness minded in recent years — with everything from stretching and foam rolling to ice baths and cryotherapy surging in popularity.

While I personally love the idea of focusing on R&R to become a better athlete (an excuse for a rest day? Yes, please!), I don’t necessarily spend as much time on it as I should. I might foam roll for a few minutes post-sweat, do yoga occasionally, get sports massages, and ice my legs after a long run. But still…my body is always tight.

I can probably blame this year’s line-up of marathon and triathlon training, as well as hunching over a laptop most days. But it’s definitely not fun to have throbbing shoulders and knots in my legs. While monthly massages have helped over the years, lately the effects have worn off. (And I, like many people, can’t afford weekly sessions.)

My massage therapist felt my pain. Appalled at the stiffness of my mid-back, he suggested I go see a rolfer.

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What Is Rolfing?

“When the body gets out of alignment, the muscles and the skeletal system can’t work efficiently.”

When I started researching rolfing, I learned it has actually been around since the 1960s. Lately, it’s gotten more popular, especially among athletes and dancers. At its foundation, rolfing is a manual therapy — sort of like deep massage — that targets the fascia, or the web of connective tissue holding your muscles and organs in place. It’s known to be intense, and at times, even painful. I love deep massages, but I wondered if I could handle it.

“The thing that makes rolfing different from [other recovery] modalities is that we’re trying to get your joints in the most optimal alignment,” says Rachel Felson, a certified rolfer and cranialsacral therapist in New York City. “With foam rolling, you can’t do that — you might be opening up the tissue, but your joints are still in the compensated place. Foam rolling is a good thing to do, but it’s not necessarily enough.”

Also, unlike stand-alone massages, rolfing requires 10 sessions, 75 minutes each, known as the 10 series. These sessions also follow a very specific progression, moving from superficial areas (like your shoulders or feet) to deeper parts of the body (like your hips). The progression is meant “to unglue the areas that are short and dense and areas that have been compensating, so everything is in alignment and can work together,” says Felson.

So you might go to a masseuse to relax your muscles in a particularly tight area of your body. A rolfer, on the other hand, would examine your entire body, figure out where the imbalance is and start working from there. That means they’ll often stop and hold pressure on those tight spots until they readjust. “You can work your muscles with massage till the cows come home, but if your joints are out of alignment, the muscles are still going to fire haphazardly,” Felson explains.

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Why You Might Need a Rolfer

It’s pretty easy to mess with your muscles and make them tight, whether you work out regularly or stay in your seat all day. “We’re sitting at desks for eight to 10 hours a day, hunched over our phones all the time. So there’s a lot of lack of movement,” Felson says. “When the body gets out of alignment, the muscles and the skeletal system can’t work efficiently. Muscles are overcompensating or not firing up properly.”

Once you better align your joints, however, you might experience benefits like increased blood flow and an uptick in oxygen to your brain, both of which allow for more freedom of movement. And those results often translate to improved sports performance, too. Anecdotally, Felson says the work she’s done has helped several of her athletic clients achieve new PRs. (Granted that’s not strict science, but we’ll take any finish line-crushing tactic we can get.)

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What to Expect in a Rolfing Session

“Half of it is on the table, the rest is what you do when you get off the table.”

To kick off my first session, Felson observed my body as I stood barefoot. She noted nearly imperceptible details about my posture. For instance, how one shoulder was slightly higher than the other and my left hip pulled forward a bit more than my right. Then, I laid down on the table for the real session to start.

Felson started by using her fingers to make small movements and knead along my shoulders and down my upper back. This worked to open my shoulder and pelvic girdles. “When does it get painful?” I asked. Turns out, that’s part myth, Felson told me. “When Dr. Rolf started developing the technique in the ’60s, the name of the game was the more pain, the better,” she explains. “People would be on therapists’ tables screaming. But as we’ve learned more about the nervous system, we’ve learned that if you want to end that loop of fight or flight, the brain needs to feel safe.”

Later that day, I definitely noticed I was able to take bigger breaths. I stood, waiting for the subway, inhaling and exhaling deeply, just because I was astounded by how far my lungs could puff out. Maybe deeper breaths were my first step to shaving some time off my marathon?

Felson gives little assignments to focus on after each session. My “homework” for the week was to carry a backpack rather than my overloaded leather tote. I was also supposed to practice standing up straight by pulling my shoulders out to the sides, rather than rolling them down my back. (Many people roll their shoulders down their back when they’re thinking about their posture. However, she says, that actually squishes the muscles of your upper back together. And it can even make the whole area more tense.) I started doing this daily, consciously standing up by imagining my shoulders being stretched to the sides.

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Rolfing: The After Effects

In the time since I’ve started rolfing sessions about two months ago, I’ve become aware of how I stand and the way my feet bend when I walk. I also pay attention to the way I puff my lungs out to the sides when I breathe, how to sit on my sits bones while working, and other tiny details about the way I move throughout the day. Making a slight shift in how you stand or sit might seem insignificant, but those small actions are crucial for making lasting changes to your structure, Felson says. “The homework I give clients is maybe 40 or 50 percent of the work. Half of it is on the table, the rest is what you do when you get off the table.”

I’m only halfway through my 10 sessions, so we’ll see if I end up with a new PR or start breezing through my speed drills. But so far I can claim that rolfing has expanded my breath, nixed a nagging ache that used to flare up at the beginning of every run, and improved my awareness of my body. A deep-tissue massage has never given me these benefits. Felson also mentioned the alignment-improving effects of rolfing are often long-lasting. Some people only coming back every few months (or years) for a tune-up. I’d say that’s worth a try.

If you want to give rolfing a go, Felson recommends signing up for series of 10 sessions. She says it’s best to go at a time of year when you’re not deep into intense training. To maintain the results, stop in for a tune-up session every month or two while in the thick of it training. To find a certified rolfer, check out the directory at the Rolf Institute of Structural Integration.

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