"Soft tissue" is a general term for the muscle, fascia, tendons and ligaments responsible for every movement you make. Without soft tissue, you wouldn't be walking, let alone dominating your competition on the field.
Unfortunately, most athletes neglect their soft tissue until they suffer a serious injury. Avoid injury and get the most out of your muscles by learning how to care for your soft tissue. This three-part series will outline the process and provide the tools necessary for great connective tissue self-care, starting in a surprising place: the feet.
Why the Feet?
Feet take a pounding during competition. Running and jumping put constant pressure on them, while ill-fitting shoes and accidents (like an opponent stepping on your feet) compound the problem. Poor soft tissue quality in the feet leads to tightness that creeps up the calves, hamstrings and hips. Start your connective tissue care in the feet, and you'll eliminate the cause of much of your discomfort.
How to Start
The best way to start caring for your soft tissue is through a process called "rolling," in which you reduce tightness in tissue and muscles by applying pressure. To roll your feet, try using a lacrosse ball, golf ball or baseball. Starting on the inside arch, roll the ball back and forth slowly while applying pressure. Work from the heel to the balls of your feet, moving in a pattern similar to mowing grass. Continue for 15 to 30 seconds, or until you feel less discomfort. The video below provides a great visual.
Continue rolling up your calves using the same technique. You can use a baseball or lacrosse ball on your calves, but a softball, foam roller or PVC pipe will produce better results. Check out the video below for proper calf rolling technique. Notice how the coach in the video uses long, sweeping rolls along the entire length of the muscle.
When to Roll
Since muscle care is a full-time job for competitive athletes, rolling the feet and calves is a great idea any time of day. You'll derive the most benefit, however, if you take a few minutes to roll immediately before and after resistance training, speed training, conditioning and practice. Rolling before training improves muscle quality, promotes better movement and reduces the chance of injury, while rolling after training improves muscle recovery and reduces tightness.
Roll your feet and calves before and after your next practice to see the difference for yourself. Master these basic rolls and watch for Part 2, which will cover soft tissue care for the legs and hips.
Todd Bumgardner, co-owner of Beyond Strength Performance (Dulles, Va.), works with athletes both in person and online. He earned his master's degree in exercise science from California University of Pennsylvania, and he has served as a collegiate strength and conditioning coach and a high school football coach. He is an NSCA-certified strength and conditioning specialist, as well as an IYCA high school strength and conditioning specialist.
Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock