Will tissue flossing make you a better rugby player?

Injuries are part and parcel of most sports. If it’s not the unrelenting training that gets you, it’s playing your chosen sport. Performing at your best means pushing yourself to your physical limits and, sometimes, exceeding them. Muscle strains and joint sprains are all too common, but that’s the price you have to pay if you want to win.

Rugby adds another injury ingredient into the mix – the opposition! It doesn’t matter how fit or strong you are, or how much pre-hab you have done, impacts with the opposition can also cause injury.

The stress of training and playing rugby means that a lot of ruggers are always injured. Injuries are often managed or ignored because treating them means taking time off from the game we love. Rest is not an option until the season finally comes to a close.

The good news is that there are lots of things you can do to keep yourself in the game and off the injured list. Of course, it’s never a good idea to play or train through major injuries, but many soft tissue injuries can be alleviated – at least in the short term.

Ice is a common if controversial injury management option. It’s been used in rugby for many years but, recently, it’s fallen out of favor. Despite this, top rugby teams still use ice baths to keep their players on their feet and in the game.  

Sports massage can also be beneficial. Sports massage involves deep tissue manipulation which helps free up fascia, work out adhesions, and restore natural movement. On the downside, it can be painful, time-consuming, and expansive.

Foam rolling is another viable injury management strategy. However, while foam rolling is great for muscles, it’s not so useful for joints. In fact, most experts agree that you should avoid using a foam roller on joints as it may make existing injuries worse.

There is another option: soft tissue flossing. Does it work and will it make you a better rugby player? Let’s take a look!

What is soft tissue flossing?

Soft tissue flossing involves wrapping a muscle or joint using a wide elastic band or tape. The band is tight enough to reduce blood flow but not so tight it causes complete occlusion. For this reason, sort tissue flossing is often associated with blood flow restriction training.

The affected area is then moved through its normal range of motion for several minutes. The band can be applied to muscle belies, such as the calves, quadriceps/hamstrings, biceps/triceps, and joints including the wrists, elbows, shoulders, ankles, knees, and hips. The neck and chest should never be flossed because of the risk of interfering with breathing. 

Once learned and practiced, floss bands can be self-administered as part of a warm-up for training and competition to help tissue mobility. To try flossing for yourself, you’ll need a couple of meters of 2.5-7.5cm-wide latex or rubber tape or a long, flat resistance band.   

  1. Firmly wrap the band around the limb (muscle or joint) starting at the end closest to your heart. Overlap the band but also avoid over-tightening it. From 0-100, aim for a tightness of around 50%.
  2. Keep the bend on for no more than 2-4 minutes.
  3. Move the joint/muscle actively or passively through an appropriate range of motion, e.g. bend and straighten your knee or elbow, or circle, flex and extend your ankle.
  4. Remove the band to allow blood flow to return to normal.

The reported benefits of soft tissue flossing

Soft tissue flossing has several reported benefits. While some studies support these conclusions, others refute them. Anecdotally, athletes using soft tissue flossing report positive results and enough people are now using this therapy that it must have some merit.

The reported benefits of soft tissue flossing are:

  1. Increased post-flossing blood flow: The band causes a small but significant buildup of blood above and below the area of application. When the band is removed, this blood flows rapidly back into the occluded area, increasing blood flow. This increase in blood flow and circulation may enhance the mechanisms of injury repair.
  2. Improved fascial glide and mobility: Fascia is the connective tissue that surrounds and separates your muscles. In the case of injury, fascia can become “gummed up” and prevent smooth, pain-free movement. Binding a muscle with a band compresses the muscle and fascia and, when the muscle is moved, this frees the fascia and helps restore normal function. Imagine wrapping a band horizontally around a handful of warmed spaghetti and then bending it; that’s the mechanical effect of soft tissue flossing.
  3. Neurological effects: Pain can often inhibit performance and range of motion. Flossing is an effective way to diminish mild to moderate pain. It can also help restore feeling to injured areas via Hilton’s law – stimulating the nerves in the skin positively affects the nerves in the underlying muscles.

While flossing clearly has some benefits, it may not be suitable for everyone. Contraindications for flossing include the following:

  • High blood pressure
  • Deep Vein Thrombosis
  • Pregnancy
  • Varicose Veins
  • Cardiac Disease

Flossing and rugby performance

While flossing does appear to increase post-application blood flow, restore range of motion, and may help speed up recovery and reduce DOMS after intense exercise, its impact on rugby performance is less impressive.

In a study conducted by the Department of Health, Sport, and Human Performance at the University of Waikato in New Zealand, 14 professional rugby players did a weight-bearing lunge test (WBLT), a countermovement (CMJ) jump test, and a 20m sprint (SPRINT) test. The tests were done pre, five minutes, and then 30 minutes after flossing the calves and ankle joint.

Why these joints specifically? Previous studies suggested that flossing could produce a significant increase in ankle range of motion, leading to increased jumping and sprint performance. However, this study was done on recreational athletes as opposed to well-conditioned professional ruggers.

While the post-flossing results were better than the pre-flossing results, the improvements were considered to be statically irrelevant and would not have much of an impact in real-world rugby playing performance.

Conclusion 

Appropriately done, soft tissue flossing does seem to have some benefits for rugby players, particularly as an easy to self-administer treatment for injuries. It appears to enhance recovery from hard training sessions too.

However, unless you are just an average Joe rugger, it is unlikely that soft tissue flossing will have much of an impact on your playing performance. That being said, if you are looking for even the smallest percentile of improvement, a few minutes of flossing could be worth adding to your warm-up routine.

AUTHOR

Patrick Dale

Patrick Dale

Pat is an ex-Royal Marine and owner at fitness qualifications company Solar Fitness Qualifications Ltd. Pat has authored three exercise books and thousands of articles. Pat has competed at a high level in several sports including rugby, triathlon, rock climbing and powerlifting.

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