Maintain and improve the quality of you and your tissues every day!
In an effort to start explaining this week’s topic I just kept taking breaks and going to the floor of my living room to actually do some release work in hopes that it might make this blog easier for you to understand as it’s a vast topic. You may think I mean stretching when I say “it” or release work, and although I think stretching (both static and dynamic) have their place that’s not what I mean here.
To explain it, feel it, and get results from it, we have to try to define what “it “really is? That’s not easy as I delve into the research on the meaning of “it” or “Self-myofascial Release” because 1) there is a lot of research 2) there is uncertainty in the research findings 3) I personally use it a lot and have experienced the benefits and 4) it comes in many shapes and sizes so defining it is very complicated.
Self-myofascial release is probably better termed “tool-assisted self-manual therapy” because of current uncertainty regarding its mechanisms of action. Using your own body weight combined with a tool to help you access and exert pressure on your tissues, you can work to release muscle tension, warm up your body and restore any imbalances in your muscle length-tension relationship. Injuries, overuse, and structural imbalances can lead to decreased performance and pain over the long term. So this is really a great idea in many ways to assist you on your health and fitness journey.
So there’s a start for us to get rolling on this topic and become more informed so we can all benefit from the time we dedicate to its practice.
It started as “foam rolling” and I was led to believe that is would really help my quad muscles from feeling so tight and it would reduce the sensation of pulling that I felt from my kneecaps. I was running a lot at the time and so I bought a foam roller and used it resulting in a lot of relief! Since then about 15 years have gone by and there has been explosion of rollers for sale commercially. Not only are there various types of materials and densities in the traditional roller, I’ve seen balls of many sizes, sticks and boxes that all essentially would be be considered tools to perform “self-manual therapy.”
Muscle and Fascia = Myofascial
The definitions that are currently used by researchers tell us that “myo” is our muscles, and fascia is a component of the connective tissue system in our body that forms a continuous three-dimensional matrix of structural support.
Myofascial release has become a term covering a wide variety of techniques that traditionally have been carried out by health practitioners such as massage therapists, physiotherapists, and chiropractors, among others who use their hands or tools/instruments to work on your soft tissue. It’s difficult to say whether it’s your muscle tissue, fascia, or a combination of both that is being treated. One has to first agree that something in the body feels tight, sensitive, or out of balance and that some kind of release will help to treat these issues.
“The sensations of pain that are caused by localized tightness in the fascia are generally referred to as “myofascial pain syndrome” and the localized tightness itself is thought to be caused by myofascial trigger points. Myofascial trigger points are more usually defined as “tender spots in discrete, taut bands of hardened muscle that produce local and referred pain.” (see review by Bron and Dommerholt, 2012/Chris Beardsley)
Many of us have been to a massage therapists or other health care providers for this kind of work, and because we felt the benefits of these visits, we have taken to self-myofascial release (the old foam rolling) or now the new catch phrase of “tool assisted self-massage.”
So if the benefits are there, and we have the research to back this up there is a lot to learn on how to take care of yourself using the various tools for self-release that are currently on the market. It surprises me the number of people who have still not really heard of this or are not aware of how the benefits could really help them. A few people might have heard a little or have an old foam roller collecting dust because they have not yet made the connection between their current state of fitness and their body “issues” and the growing support and research behind this topic. I encourage you to learn more about self-release and make this a permanent part of your fitness and health routine. In other words, dust off the rollers!
At it’s time! Fitness Results we encourage our clients to arrive before their session start time so they can work on their body and make some changes to the tissues. After doing this for a while you will start to notice that certain areas of your body may hold onto more tension than others and I would encourage you to spend more time working to release those places.
A little amount of basic strength is needed to get onto the roller on the floor so if you are starting out and very deconditioned this may present a few challenges until you become stronger. There are ways to use balls against the wall that are very effective and do not require one to get up and down from the floor.
Still not convinced? Then let’s look at a few more facts on the acute and chronic effects of self-release as it pertains to flexibility, athletic performance, balance, muscle soreness, and also your recovery, heart rate variability (HRV), and circulation.
Current best evidence points towards a neurophysiological mechanism involving muscle activity for acute changes, which differs from the way in which stretching is effective. Evidence suggests the combination of myofascial release and static stretching has positive outcomes for those requiring more flexibility.
Another key thing to note here links to earlier this year when it’s time! Fitness Results trainer and kinesiologist Andrea Brennan along with Niamh McGowan from Trimetrics Physiotherapy wrote on hypermobility syndrome in their blog Loose Joints? Don’t Overstretch. Many people with hypermobility and Joint Hypermobility Syndrome have a strong desire to stretch. Stretching isn’t recommended because of laxity in the joints and so the urge to stretch should be replaced with rolling. We can say that self-myofascial release is recommended and thought to be beneficial to their condition as the mechanisms involved are different.
Another gem from Beardsley here shows that combining foam rolling and static stretching may add up to get you better results.
None of these studies found any adverse effects on athletic performance as a result of self-myofascial release. One study even found a benefit. This is in contrast to static stretching, which has often been found to decrease athletic performance.
There is very preliminary evidence that self-myofascial release might improve balance in chronic stroke patients, although the mechanisms by which might occur are unclear and the results must be confirmed in additional trials.
Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is pain in the muscles after a bout of exercise that may or may not be connected to actual underlying muscle damage, often where such exercise involved eccentric muscle actions or unaccustomed movements. DOMS commonly peaks 24 – 48 hours post-exercise.
Recovery, Heart Rate Variability, and Circulation
The mechanism by which myofascial release or self-myofascial release might improve blood flow is uncertain and may be multifactorial. There are indications that direct pressure could produce both a direct effect on tension in the smooth muscle of the arteries and also an increase in vasodilators, thereby enhancing blood flow.
Self-myofascial release may potentially: improve arterial stiffness, improve vascular endothelial function, reduce cortisol levels post-exercise, increase parasympathetic activity (high frequency HRV), and reduce sympathetic activity (low frequency HRV).
As much as these above affects are wanted and needed in many of us it’s still difficult to understand the exact mechanisms behind the success of employing these techniques on yourself. The exact mechanism by which self-myofascial release might affect either muscle and/or fascia in order to bring about these affects is still unknown and the topic is highly contentious, according to Beardsley.
Some of the current theories propose that there are mechanical, sensational, and neurophysiological mechanisms that could explain what happens for both the short and long term implementation and benefits of this practice.
Where to start?
- From the bottom up or the top down – your choice!
- Some common places: Feet, Calves, Shins, Quadriceps, Hamstrings, Gluteal/Hips, Back (avoid low back) , Lats, Shoulders, Arms, …the more you try the more effective you will be.
- Slowly – Don’t make the mistake of going too fast and not making any change.
- Sound effects allowed!
- 10 passes in 10 places is a good starting point so that you can form an idea of where you personally hold tension. Everyone is different!
- Be careful not to go too hard – yes you can bruise yourself and that’s not good.
Is there a whole body affect? Yes, I believe there is so don’t take this practice lightly. Commit to it and get the results. This is not a dusting over or a light pass-over. To be effective and change the quality of the tissues you must exert some pressure.
There are so many combinations and tools to use that I have included just a few pictures here to show you some options.
To do it or not to do it? I would like to encourage you to try it at least before passing judgement! The investment in some tools (rollers, balls, and sticks) is small comparatively to individual massage and physio treatments. I know there is a place and need for their scope but if you respond to the benefits of their treatments perhaps you can lengthen the time needed between treatments or perhaps eliminate the need for additional therapy entirely.
Think of this as an investment in your body – time and effort to maintain and improve the quality of you and your tissues every day!
You can do it and you should! Now go and show me how you roll!
Written by: Sheila Hamilton July 2017
Click here to listen to Sheila discuss this topic on the Jon McComb show. The Fitness Segment airs live every Thursday at 9:05 on CKNW 980 am.