A treatment process developed in the middle of the 20th century by a lady called Ida Rolf, Rolfing is all about returning your body to its optimum structure, via the realignment of the interconnective tissues (or myofascial layer) that hold the muscles in place. It is usually done in a series – taking the form of 10 one-on-one sessions that follow a specific plan, moving through different body parts and muscle groups with methodical rigour.
What is it used for?
Often used as a method to treat chronic pain, like that associated with nasty RSI or muscle imbalances (as seen in professional musicians, or athletes) or for arthritis and back pain. For me, it was a debilitating hip injury, combined with some nasty stiffness in the upper back - oh and – let’s not forget that weak ankle - that led me to looking beyond the more well known treatment methods to something, perhaps more far-reaching, that might get (literally) get under the skin of the issue.
What about Rolfing for runners, more specifically?
If you’re a runner, the chances are you’re already familiar with different types of treatment methods, like physiotherapy (which takes the long, slow, but often very successful view), acupuncture (which aims to release tension from muscles, often with high levels of pain, and thus swearing, on my part) and sports massage (that kneading thing you love to hate). Maybe you even know a bit about muscle activation techniques and myofascial release therapy, and perhaps you can administer a bit of love to your knotty bits yourself, via the ubiquitous foam roller or a hard ball.
Rolfing is slightly different from each of these methods, in that a practitioner can actually lift up and move the myofascial layer back into its correct place, as well as helping to flush out waste products, as any tough massage might.
“I have worked with many amateur runners who report better economy of movement in running, as well as the resolution of various niggles such as ankle, knee or hip pain,” said experienced London-based Rolfer, Alan Richardson, when I inquired as to how his chosen method might be able to help.
Obviously, when niggles are sorted out and postural issues addressed, it’s possible to run better (especially – disclaimer! - if you’ve taken a few running technique lessons). This then leads to a reduced risk of injury, not to mention a general upsurge in style, speed and panache. It is a little bit chicken-and-egg though; you need to run with good form, to avoid overuse injuries and postural imbalances developing. But if you’ve got those problems already, the injuries are around the corner…
As with many “alternative” approaches however, the true value is largely subjective. Certainly I found my series of Rolfing sessions to highlight those gnarly points or issues that had the potential to effect my running (and life in general). It took a while though - thank goodness I decided to do the entire series before I made a final judgement because it wasn’t until session 6/7 that we really started to get to the crux of things - my neck, chest and shoulder area are “holding” huge amounts of ... Something? Energy? Tension? Fear? Whatever it is, it’s causing problems.
“Do you know the meaning of the word relax?” Alan jokes, as I try to allow him to release my pectoral muscle whilst exhaling, lying on my back on the treatment table.
I think we’ve found a sore sport. Chest tightness however, is also typical of those who, like me, sit at a desk typing for hours on end. But it’s not just part time desk jockeys and part time fitness junkies (like me) who wind up on Rolfers’ tables. Olympic silver medallist in diving, Leon Taylor, has been treated by a huge variety of sports therapists during his career. Having recently completed a Half Ironman triathlon, he’s now considering a full Ironman. He says of the Rolfing sessions he had with Anna Collins: “In general, I felt I’d had my creases ironed out. In terms of running in particular… I’ll admit the weakest part of every triathlon for me is definitely the run, that’s where my body starts to really play up! But after Rolfing at least I feel I’ve got more movement in the lower back and hips, which is obviously very important for running.”
Does it hurt?
Yes, Rolfing can be fairly uncomfortable, even painful, at points (but then again, so can untreated injuries...) Like sports massage, Rolfing is very hands-on, but unlike most massage, it uses no oils, just skin and pressure against muscles and connective tissue. If you’re like me, and enjoy having tension kneaded out of you, then it needn’t be completely unpleasant.
Where can you find yourself a Rolfer and how much will it cost?
Up until this month there were only 23 qualified Rolfers in the UK. But this June (2014), 12 new Rolfers graduate after completing the first ever UK Rolfing qualification.
Costs vary between practitioners and locations. More information atrolfinguk.co.uk