Maintaining healthy muscle and tissue is no small task. There are over 600 skeletal muscles in the human body and every one is anchored/connected to one another within a web of fascia. When we challenge muscle through positive or negative forces, it adapts with the goal of compensating and surviving. When the forces exceed a muscle's ability to adapt (either because of the high level of force, the repetition or the lack of recovery time), the muscle's health declines, scar tissue forms around/within it and adjacent connective tissue/fascia begin to stiffen. When that happens over and over, the body can reach a point where it experiences pain - a.k.a. the cease and desist warning our body tissues send to the brain.
When this happens, self-myofascial release can help.
*Note: I still recommend and practice traditional stretching myself. It's another tool in the toolbox and you have to diversify your fitness routine!
There are many ways to perform self-myofascial release. In the context of this particular post, I'll focus on the use of a foam roll. This is a relatively mild myofascial tool and may not alleviate small points of tightness in the muscle/fascia. If you feel that it it not "reaching that spot" you might want to progress to a tennis or lacrosse ball (to be discussed in a later post). There are different levels of "firmness" of foam rolls available. When comparing them, you'll see this described as density. I'd recommend a low to moderate density version and if you're just beginning to use one, you don't need to invest in any of the rolls with odd patterns/edges. Keep it simple, be consistent with it and you'll see progress on the simple model.
What exactly does foam rolling accomplish?
The myofascial junction (the point where the muscle and the fascia meet) is often an area of tenderness and increased tone (resting tightness). As two types of tissue are joining here, there is a lot of stress placed on these points and they can get tight, inflamed and painful. While stretching is important in soft tissue health and injury prevention, it alone cannot address these areas of tightness. When you stretch, areas of extreme tightness don't really change - rather the relaxed and healthy muscle tissue adjacent does.
The mechanism by which self-myofascial release affects flexibility is unclear. Current best evidence points towards a neurophysiological mechanism involving decreasing muscle activity (a.k.a tightness and amount of resting contraction) with the pressure of the roll/ball. This may account for the quick improvements that you see immediately after rolling. It is also possible that the pressure and stretching create heat in the area which allows for increased circulation and better nutritional supply to the targeted areas (why you may see increased speed of recovery).
How does one "foam roll"?
You can roll over any muscle/connective tissue in the body. The keys to remember for safety are to avoid rolling across joints or areas of skin damage (bruises, open cuts, rashes) as this can cause harm. Traditionally, you should roll across the length of the muscle, and then after a few passes, begin to focus on rolling the sore spots in particular. The duration of the treatment can vary, but about 2-3 minutes per body segment is sufficient. During that time most people feel significant relaxation (for the potential reasons outlined above).
Tip for better results:
Try to roll after a good warm-up so that you have better circulation moving through the areas that you are focusing on. Foam rolling can also be done after a workout to decrease the amount of soreness.
Listed below are some of the links to YouTube videos that show how to use the foam roller on several muscles in the body. If you need more of a description of the process, drop me an email and I can send you text instructions.
- Hamstrings: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aUC9mVQWDxQ
- Quadriceps: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BRMbTr5HX6k
- Latissimus Dorsi: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OwtQwDgr_II
- Gluteal/Piriformis: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OxkuKMhS_p8
- ITB (illiotibial band): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LeEqGuT2ue4
Keep an eye out for an upcoming post on the Anatomy of fascia. It is a super-important and often under-appreciated part of the body so I'm going to give it plenty of discussion!
More muscles and videos of self-myofascial release to come! Send specific requests to firstname.lastname@example.org or ask about them in the comments.