Without trying, we put our body to the test every day. We lift heavy things, sometimes with incredibly poor posture. We hunch over computers at work, sit in the car for hours during our commutes, and spend plenty of time hover over our smartphones. After a while, the body starts adapting to these new “normal” conditions, even if they’re not the greatest. According to CNN, the negative effects of sitting are slowly killing you, even if you’re a person who exercises regularly!
Basically, our bodies take a pretty intense beating.
You may have heard of “foam rolling” or even “self-myofascial release” before, and that they’re great ways to help repair your body. It may sound complicated, but foam rolling and self-myofascial release don’t have to be such a mystery. This guide will take you through everything you need (and didn’t know you want) to know.
What is Fascia?
Table of Contents
I know, it’s a weird sounding word that doesn’t really make sense, right?
According to the dictionary, fascia is “a thin sheath of fibrous tissue enclosing a muscle.” Basically, it’s a spiderweb of fibers that are woven through every part of the body that “glues” everything together. Fascia helps keep your muscles, tendons, organs, and veins in just the right place, so your body can function properly. If you were able to see it, you’d see that “Each muscle would be surrounded and invested with a looser (but still structurally strong) network. Every bone would have a tough plastic wrap layer around the outside. Every organ would be invested and then bagged in a fascial sac. Only the open tubes of the digestive, respiratory, and lymphatic system would be utterly free of the fascial net.” (AnatomyTrains.net)
Still not sure what to compare it to?
Think of a section of an orange or a grapefruit.
When you look at the individual section, you can see different layers that contain tiny packets of juice and pulp. The layers of the fruit that “hold everything together” is like the fascia in the body.
In a healthy body, the fascia allows the muscles to move freely. However, when there’s any sort of trauma or damage, the fascia becomes tight and inflamed to the point that there’s tension in the body and muscle movement is restricted. According to the Myofascial Release Treatment Center, “Fascial restrictions can exert excessive pressure causing all kinds of symptoms producing pain, headaches, or restriction of motion. Fascial restrictions affect our flexibility and stability and are a determining factor in our ability to withstand stress and perform daily activities.”
For most people, injury to the body musculature can happen without even knowing it. Something as simple as sitting hunched over for too long can force the body to adapt to positions that it wasn’t designed to support, which puts stress on the muscular system.
With enough trauma, the fascia begins to build up more tension and pressure to the point that there is restricted movement and tension on the body. Evidence of the damaged fascia varies based on the location of the injury and extent of the damage. However, the damage can have wide ranging effects if not treated.
One of the most common areas of “trauma” is in the hip, due to the regular use of the hip flexor and extensor muscles.
Every time you take a step, the hip flexor and extensor muscles are in use. Because of their regular use, the muscles can become extremely tight over time. With the increased tension, the flexor actually begins to pull the hips forward, putting unnatural pressure on the lower back.
So if you suffer from lower back pain, notice how you normally stand when at rest. If you notice your hips are dropped, there’s a possibility that tight hips are pulling on and creating the lower back pain you experience.
In order to repair the musculature and help it restore itself to it’s natural state, foam rolling and other forms of self-myofascial release have been shown to be incredibly helpful.
What is Self-Myofascial Release?
Massage techniques are known as a resource for soft muscle tissue therapy to promoting muscle repair and to help release tension. Even though it’s beneficial (and feels great,) it’s not really convenient or financially feasible to go to the spa for an hour long massage every day.
Self-myofascial release is soft muscle tissue therapy that you are able to do yourself; it’s like having your own personal masseuse (you!) within the comfort of your own home, and usually only takes 10-15 minutes.
Using a foam roller or other mobility tools, you are able to place pressure on “trigger points” or troublesome areas that help break up knots in muscles and over time, helps restore the muscle to its proper function.
Regular active mobility work has been shown to:
- increase blood flow to the muscles
- lengthen and elongate muscles
- increases muscle flexibility and function
- repair tight and fatigued muscles
- re-train and restore the body to it’s natural state
- improves joint range of motion
- relieve joint stress
The actual process of myofascial release occurs through the muscle spindle and golgi tendon organ, two neural receptors found within the muscle tissue: muscle spindles and the Golgi tendon organ.
The primary purpose of the muscle spindle is to detect changes to the length of the muscle. Sensory neurons transmit the muscle length to the brain to help identify (spatially) what position body parts are in. The Golgi tendon organ can be found at the origin and insertion points of each muscle. It’s primary purpose is to identify the level of tension in a muscle.
When the muscle spindles detect a change in muscle length, they transmit the change to the central nervous system, which triggers a stretch reflex (Clark & Russell, 2014). The stretch reflex occurs to counteract the tension created by the stretched muscle. The muscle fibers being stretched contract in opposition to the stretch, while the fibers opposite the stretch relax to help the muscle adapt and remain at a constant length.
When enough pressure is introduced to the muscle, the muscle spindles and Golgi tendon organ receptors become overstimulated to the point where muscle tension begins to decrease (Clark & Russell, 2014). The process of relaxation is called autogenic inhibition, which means the muscle relaxes due to overstimulation, and the reduced tension decreases pain and helps the muscle to restore to it’s natural function.
It’s believed that foam rolling and mobility exercises increase the muscle tension in the golgi tendon organ to the point of overstimulation, where the muscle relaxes, ultimately decreasing pain and restoring the muscle to proper function (Robertson, 2008).
Despite the many benefits, a lot of people avoid foam rolling or mobility work because it can be painful. In some cases, you are literally tearing apart layers of fascia in order to break up scar tissue. However, the long term benefits are definitely worth the short term pain.
How to Foam Roll
The actual process of foam rolling is quite easy. Using a foam roller or other mobility device, you put intense, direct pressure on “trigger points” to help the muscle to release and return to normal. The focused pressure helps target deeper layers of the muscle tissue than would normally be reached during a Swedish-type massage.
Kelly Starrett suggests that it takes at least two minutes in order to make any sort of soft tissue change.
Direct pressure on tender areas will help relieve pain faster than fluid movements over an area will. So if you’re completing an exercise feel pain on a particular part of the muscle, stop and rest on the tender area for 45 seconds. This additional time helps the mobility tool to penetrate deeper layers of the muscle, reducing muscular tension. Repeatedly rolling a painful area of the muscle without stopping to focus on each trigger point can actually make the muscle tighter, so be sure you spend enough time and enough pressure on the trigger points.
There are plenty of online resources and video tutorials that walk you through mobility exercises step-by-step. Choose ones that demonstrate the exercises and clearly show proper form. MoveWell is an app that allows you to pick a mobility routine based on your goals. If you want to help strengthen your muscles and recover from lower back pain or an IT band injury, there are specific workouts tailor-made for your needs. If you want to focus your mobility work to help increase your power for olympic lifting, there are specific routines you can follow.
So what mobility tools do I use?
Realistically, you can use almost anything. Glass bottles, barbells, foam rollers, even bicycle tubes cut in half.
In “Becoming a Supple Leopard”, Kelly Starrett defines three separate categories of mobility tools based on their overall effectiveness, along with the level of pain they inflict.
Here are the categories he recommends:
Yoga Tune Up Balls
Lacrosse Balls (You can also tape two balls together to help mobilize the thoracic spine)
Barbell and Kettlebell
Rogue Monster Band
Battlestar and little Battlestar
Supernova and Supernovito
Voodoo Floss Band
Mistakes to Avoid
There are a few common mistakes that people often make when they first start foam rolling.
Rolling too fast
Part of what makes foam rolling work, is that the muscle has to adapt – first by contracting and then eventually releasing the tension. If you move too quickly, the muscle doesn’t have time to process the tension.
Rolling directly on an injured area
If you work the trigger points too much, you could actually create more damage to the tissue, which inhibits healing. Focus on the surrounding areas first, and then you can slowly and gently work your way into the injured area.
Spending too much time on the trigger points
Similar to rolling directly on the injured area, if you spend too much time on the trigger points you could actually cause more damage to the tissue. When you find knots, spend between 20-45 seconds and then move on.
If you’re not careful, poor form can make your existing injuries worse. MoveWell and other video tutorials show you proper foam rolling form, so you will know exactly how to position your body in order to complete the movement successfully and safely.
After the fact
Just because your foam rolling workout is finished, the work isn’t done. Here are some essential things you need to fully recover from daily mobility routines.
Sleep, Sleep, Sleep
Your body needs adequate time to recover from what you’ve just put it through! Make sure to give your body adequate time to rest, so the muscles can release tension and fully repair themselves.
Science has shown that the best sleep happens in the hours before midnight, and in rooms without unnatural light sources. So stop your late-night Netflix binge and turn off your smartphone for some really good ZZz. If you’re feeling really ambitious, sleep in a cool room and wake up when the sun rises. Your body will love you even more.
Drink the right stuff
I can’t tell you how important hydrating your body is. Water not only helps improve your body’s digestive and adrenal functions, but also helps to fight fatigue, and helps remove toxins from the body. After any type of workout, the muscles become inflamed and water helps to clear away toxins from the damaged muscles.
And you may not want to hear this…but sports drinks don’t help like you think. Sure, they taste good and it’s nice to have some “flavor,” but unless you spend hours exercising, you probably don’t lose enough electrolytes to justify a sports drink. All you get is a bunch of added sugar that puts an unnecessary strain on your system. Lots of water is the best thing you can give your body to help it repair itself. But if you absolutely need some flavor in your water, squeeze in a little lemon or lime juice.
Eating healthfully is essential for obvious reasons. It doesn’t make sense to spend time trying to help your body repair itself only to turn around and feed it foods that don’t accomplish your goal. Lean meats and LOTS of vegetables work wonders for your muscles. PaleoMealPlans.com and UltimatePaleoGuide.com has amazing recipes that are sure to whet your appetite and more resources that will help your muscles repair themselves.
Perfect that posture
You’ve just spent time trying to help repair your body, and possibly even gone through some pain in order to make it happen! Don’t put your body right back in the situation you were trying to get out of! Focus on building positive posture habits, especially when you’re working at the computer or staring down at your phone. It may feel incredibly unnatural at first, but the more you do it the faster your body will be able to “re-adapt”.
A final note
Remember, helping your body repair itself is a process, and it will take time. If your body has been forced to adapt itself to unnatural circumstances for a long period of time, it may take a while for you to start seeing results. That doesn’t diminish how important mobility exercises and recovery are for your overall health and wellbeing. That’s one of the biggest reasons why we created the MoveWell app, because mobility exercises can make a HUGE difference in how you feel. The same exercises we share in MoveWell are what has helped me recover from this bad injury last year. It’s taken time, but it’s made all the difference.
Other Great Foam Rolling Guides and Resources