If you opened your racket bag right now, odds are you'd find some flat balls hanging around from a hit a while ago. Rather than tossing them out, why not keep one to help you stay loose, improve your circulation and remain (hopefully) injury-free?
We're sure that the utility of a tennis ball as a tool for releasing fascia is on your radar in one way or another. Perhaps your physiotherapist has suggested a particular exercise to help rehabilitate an injury or you've read about a couple of different techniques in an online article that seemed worthwhile?
We were in the same camp but knew that we would benefit from a much more thorough understanding of the science behind self-myofascial release (SMR) and exercises especially useful for the specific injuries that frequently plague tennis players.
Below you will find our guide to SMR and the key exercises you can do with the aid of a tennis ball to relieve pain and speed up recovery.
Myofascial release is a manual medical technique in which gentle pressure is applied to myofascial connective tissue in order to safely restore motion and reduce muscle pain. Myofascial tissues are the tough membranes that wrap, connect and support your muscles. According to the Mayo Clinic, myofascial pain differs from other types of pain because it originates in "trigger points," which are related to stiff, anchored areas within the myofascial tissue.
During myofascial release therapy, the therapist locates myofascial areas that feel stiff and fixed instead of elastic and movable under light manual pressure. These areas, though not always near what feels like the source of pain, are thought to restrict muscle and joint movements, which contributes to widespread muscle pain.
The focused manual pressure and stretching used in myofascial release therapy loosen up restricted movement, leading indirectly to reduced pain. The technique employs the piezoelectric and viscous flow phenomenon, meaning it’s chiefly about the slow application of low load (in this case, gentle pressure via a tennis ball) to enable elongation of viscoelastic medium (myofascial tissue).
How does the 'self' aspect of this type of intervention come into play? Myofascial release can be achieved via the help from a trained therapist (i.e. 'active release' or certain kinds of sports massages) or, you can employ techniques yourself to try to achieve the same goals...
In many respects, a tennis ball is a superior tool to the ubiquitous foam rollers we see everywhere and even to human hands when it comes to myofascial release. Why? The ball is smaller, finer and a more powerful alternative because it provides a higher level of accuracy as it easily moves around and pinpoints sore and tight muscles. Need to work out tissue tightness between your spine and shoulder blades? A ball is a far better option than a roller for this purpose.
The benefit of adding SMR to your routine extends beyond the obvious imperative of alleviating soreness. In fact, dedicating time to SMR can help you in the following ways:
Carrying an old tennis ball in your racket bag for SMR is an easy way to try to stay injury-free.
Check out our guide to the other items you should carry in your racket bag to be completely prepared on the court.
Now that you have the background as to why and how SMR works, the next obvious question is where to apply it as a tennis player. Here is a list of the top 5 locations to consider for individuals regularly playing racket sports:
1. Trapezius muscles: Get started by massaging the area under your armpits just across the scapula and behind the shoulder to discover the areas of tightness and a variety of trigger points you didn't think existed (!). Next, stand against the wall and position the ball between your spine and shoulder blades. Change the angle of your stance to apply more or less pressure as you move the ball around your trapezius muscles. See a video demonstrating a similar exercise below:
2. Glutes: Needless to say, your three gluteal muscles are an extremely powerful (and frequently very tight) part of your body, managing all movements around the hips and thighs. Perform SMR on your glutes by placing a tennis ball underneath the right gluteus maximus and lifting yourself up with your hands placed behind you to adjust the level of pressure. Slowly roll the ball towards your waist and back down again, gradually covering the area of the target muscle. Repeat on your left side. See a video demonstrating a similar exercise below:
3. IT Band: Relieve pain and tightness in your hip flexors by positioning the the ball on your IT band near your knee and slowly rolling it upwards. Make sure you bear the bulk of your weight via your hands and other leg because the IT band can be super tight and sensitive. Track the length of the IT band a couple of times gradually increasing pressure if possible.
4. Hamstrings: Start off by sitting on your mat with your legs straight out in front of you in a narrow 'V' shape. Move the flesh from below your sitting bones so that they are resting directly on the floor. Slide a tennis ball under each thigh and position them directly under your sitting bones. Try leaning forward and back to increase or decrease the sensation as needed, but resist the urge to stretch forward, as stretching will pull on the muscle.
When you’re ready, move the tennis balls so that they’re about 1/3 of the way between your hips and knees and repeat the process. Then do the same with the tennis balls positioned about 2/3 of the way between your hips and knees. See a video demonstrating a similar exercise below:
5. Feet: Ever had or heard of a condition called Plantar Fasciitis? It's not pleasant. However, using a tennis ball tactically by rolling it under the bottom of your foot provides a self-controlled massage and stretch for the plantar fascia. Start by sitting on a chair and placing the tennis ball under your foot. Gently apply as much pressure as you can tolerate to push the ball into the floor, rolling the ball back and forth from your toes to your heel. Roll the ball for 30 seconds and switch to the other foot. Perform the rolling massage tennis ball exercise two to four days per week to prevent foot-related injuries. See a video demonstrating a similar exercise below:
This is largely a question of knowing your body and taking preventative action when you feel abnormally tight, which can be a signal that you're progressing towards an injury. If you're active several times a week, ideally you should add SMR to your routine on a regular basis. As noted above, it's important to be warm before starting the exercises, so doing them after you play is preferable to adding them to a warm up.