Self-myofascial release is a stretching technique for treating muscle stiffness and pain. It improves the gliding of the body's structures, including skin, fat and fascia, and affects your nervous system as well. It's become increasingly popular for improving mobility, preventing injury, boosting performance and helping you recover after exercising.
Whether you use a foam roller, massage balls or any other product to manage your aches and pains, here's everything you need to know about self-myofascial release (SMR):
1. DON'T have a "no pain, no gain" mentality.
If you perform self-myofascial release and it's so painful that you can't breathe and your entire body clinches up, you're missing the point. This is how you trigger your body's "fight or flight" response, which is the opposite of what you're trying to accomplish. Research shows that aggressive deep-tissue massage is not what you want when you're stressed. You want to hit the brakes, not the gas pedal.
DO find the sweet spot between pleasure and pain that is productive yet tolerable. Relax into the release, take slow, deep breaths and visualize the restricted, painful tissue releasing. This is a great way to change neural pathways (neuroplasticity) and affect the nervous system. No brain, no gain!
2. DON'T go too fast.
Some people roll their bodies like they're rolling out pizza dough, causing them to miss out on a lot of sensory information. It's not about rolling and squishing tissues to break up adhesions, which research shows is impossible.
DO move slowly and consciously. Count 10 breaths at each location, compress and lengthen your target area and make small movements into the direction of restriction.
3. DON'T chase the pain and repeatedly beat up the same spots.
If you keep releasing the right piriformis muscle in your hip, but the tightness keeps coming back, it might be time to spend some time elsewhere. The muscle is most likely working overtime, so ask yourself why that one muscle is working so hard. The cause could be issues somewhere else, such as an unstable ankle or a restricted shoulder on the other side of your body.
DO target new places that you haven't tried yet. Find a neighboring muscle that is inhibited and activate it by performing stabilization drills. Better yet, have a clinician assess your movement and educate you as to where you should be focusing. You may be chasing your tail if you have a stability impairment and lack a genuine braking system to control movement.
4. DON'T attribute the benefits to stretched/released muscle or fascia.
The reduction in pain and perceived ease of movement after performing self-myofascial release is often attributed to stretched or released structures, but the reality is that pain can't be solely attributed to what happens in the muscle or fascia alone. Also, you cannot selectively target fascia or muscle exclusively. When you compress and roll your body, all the other cells -- including muscle, nerve, skin and fat -- are involved.
Don't forget that there are many other important structures at play that send messages back and forth to the brain via the spinal cord. The role that your neurological system plays is more powerful than any mechanical changes that occur where pressure has been applied.
DO start thinking in terms of working on function and movement, not structure. The human body is an ecosystem in fine balance, as opposed to a car with broken parts in need of repair. Make changes to the driver (your brain and nervous system), not the car (your muscles and fascia). SMR's effects and benefits aren't possible without the external assistance of a tool, but your body's ability to change from the inside out should be given all of the credit.
5. DON'T forget to move afterward.
The benefits of self-myofascial release don't last very long unless you follow up with meaningful movement that will allow the changes to stick. Many people foam roll, flail on the ground and call it a day. They're missing one critical step, because the purpose of pain is to train your body to engage in protective behaviors. If your nervous system fears bending over to touch your toes, you'll play it safe and apply the brakes to your range of motion.
DO perform repetitions of pain-free movement. This will turn down your body's involuntary "alarm system," which is very sensitive to anything perceived as threatening. After performing self-myofascial release, perform slow and pain-free movements that take a joint or muscle through its range of motion. For example, if the back of your neck is incredibly stiff, release it and then perform 10 slow tucks of your chin to your chest and imagine the tissues lengthening and loosening.
Tweak your approach, avoid these five mistakes and enjoy your newly acquired mobility!
-Written by Kevin Hendry