By Nicole Nelson, MS, LMT
As an avid runner, you know that recovery is a key element to improving performance. Recovery strategies can range from taking a day off from training, getting a massage, taking a yoga class, nutritional supplementation or meditation. One recovery method that has seen a recent increase in popularity in the running world is self myofascial release (SMR) or foam rolling. SMR is based on the principles of myofascial therapy performed by a soft tissue therapist and is believed to “break up” fascial adhesions that are associated with losses in mobility, nerve entrapment and muscle imbalance. Fascia is essentially the webbing (which is continuous from head to toe, wrapping around every organ, bone and cell) that helps maintain our structure, as well as permit fluid movement. These adhesions can develop for any number of reasons including injury, disease, inactivity or too much activity.
How it works. There a few theories behind why SMR seems to be such a successful recovery tool. One of which has to due with how the compression of the roller can improve the sliding surface quality of fascia. Fascia is primarily comprised of collagen, elastin, colloidal gels and water within what has been labeled the Extracellular Matrix (ECM). Dependant on the quantities of these components within the ECM, fascia can assume varying viscosity, from thick and sticky (gel like state) to fluid and slippery (sol like state). The gel state has a lower hydration level in which the fascia often becomes adhered to surrounding layers of tissue. It is important to note that when we move or stretch, collagen fibers don’t really lengthen, rather the consistency of the ECM will permit gliding of fibers along other structures. Research suggests the stretch of myofascial therapy induces a temporary decrease in tissue water content, which, after a brief recovery, is followed up by a flooding of the tissue, similar to the wringing and refilling of a sponge. This refilling of fascia is believed to restore the sliding surfaces and tissue elasticity.
Another theory suggests that the compression of the roller triggers sensory receptors within fascia and muscle which in turn signals a release of excessive tension. You could think of this as a reboot to your soft tissue.
Now, before you start mashing tissue with the roller, let’s go over some of the more commonly asked questions about rolling.
When should I do it? Anytime you can make the time. Many of you have heard that static stretching can diminish force production if done before a work out. This does not seem to be the case with rolling. A recent study in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research had subjects foam roll their quadriceps for 60 seconds, rest 30 seconds, then repeat for 60 seconds. Two minutes following the foam rolling, flexibility was increased by 12.7% (11 degrees), and ten minutes following the foam rolling, flexibility was increased by 10.3% (9 degrees). Foam rolling did not impede voluntary muscle activation, force or evoked contractile properties. In a nutshell, this study suggests foam rolling enhances range of motion without diminishing neuromuscular performance. Ideally, roll before your workouts. In situations when you can’t, don’t worry. The benefits of soft tissue therapy seem to have a cumulative effect. The long and short of this means, be consistent with your rolling-10 minutes/day and get it in when you can.
How long should I do it? Until you can feel some change to the tissue. Most myofascial therapists will tell you that it can take several minutes of attention to a specific area to create the sought after “melt” of fascial layers. The same holds true with SMR. Let’s say you devote 10 minutes of session time to foam rolling. You will get much better results if you don’t try to cover the entire body, rather pick two areas and work them thoroughly. For example, if you are about to do a 10 mile trail run, your calves and quads will appreciate some freeing up. Likewise, if you have a swim scheduled and you have been sitting at the office all day, work on the pecs and the lats.
How do I do it? Slowly, working superficial to deep. Fascia exists in layers throughout the entire body; an objective of rolling is to break up the adhesions that are preventing the layers from sliding along one another. Generally speaking SMR is more effective when you attempt to create “shear” or lateral movement between layers. I liken this to separating a peanut butter sandwich, you must slide and twist the bread slowly to separate it. If you can manage to trap the adhered tissue and drag it an inch or two, you can unglue the structures that need to glide along each other. I find this to be a very successful approach when working with the IT band. The reality is, the IT band could probably pull the load equivalent of a large truck, so it is unlikely we are affecting this strong sheath of fascia by pressing straight down on it (collagen can withstand 2,000 lbs of pressure/sq. in. in some areas). You will be far more effective if your focus is on ungluing the IT band from the underlying lateral quadricep and hamstring muscles.
Is it supposed to hurt? When I first became a massage therapist, I would have answered yes to this question. I would sadistically (yet, with good intentions) impose my will via my elbow or knee on my client’s tissue, digging in until their eyes would bulge and I’d hear them whimper “Uncle”. This approach did nothing other than leave my clients bruised and feeling beaten up. Effective soft tissue release must stay under the body’s protective guarding threshold. In other words, if you are wincing and holding your breath during SMR work, you are most likely not accomplishing very much and will probably toss the roller in the back of your closet – never to be seen again. Now don’t get me wrong, SMR may be uncomfortable, but it should never painful. Recall that pressure to both muscle and fascial tissue excites sensory receptors which are known to illicit a relaxation. There is a point; however, where too much pressure, applied too quickly, will excite sensory receptors that illicit a guarding, self protecting response. This effect is quite similar to stretching a muscle beyond what the nervous system deems a safe range. Once the body perceives a threat, the body will effectively lock down and hold even more tension. Your sensory system plays a large roll in the success of SMR, so be patient and work with the tissue, superficial to deep.
What should I be rolling? Many of us have been taught through our old biology and anatomy text books to view the body and movement within a muscular context. For example, bending the elbow involves the bicep muscle shortening, as one attachment of the bicep muscle moves closer to the other attachment. This is not entirely wrong, but it certainly leaves you with an incomplete impression as to how movement takes place and how fascia unites seemingly distant areas of the body. Fascia blends with and is anatomically continuous with adjacent fascia. The functional significance of this must be studied further, but it seems that mechanical tensions do extend through fascial connections and can impose themselves in a far reaching way. It follows that our mobility and SMR work must consider more than just linear muscular attachments. For example, let’s say that despite constantly rolling your hamstring, it still feels extremely tight. “Tight hamstrings” could be an expression of many things, but within the context of fascial continuity, you might consider the tugging and strain patterns distant from the hamstring. The problem might actually be upstream or downstream of where the feeling of tightness is. Rolling the muscles of the hip, calf or bottom of the foot might bring you some relief and help fix the actual problem.
To sum up, SMR is an effective, inexpensive and convenient method to manage soft tissue quality and ultimately enhance performance. Be patient and consistent and you will get results. Good luck and happy rolling!
About the Author:
Nicole Nelson is a licensed massage therapist in Jacksonville, Florida. Nicole has been in the fitness field for over 15 years holding a masters degree in Health Science and is an Advanced Health and Fitness Specialist through ACE. Nicole has contributed articles to Massage Magazine, Massage Today, and IDEA health and fitness journal among other fitness blogs. You can contact Nicole here.