OK, so maybe I exaggerated a bit. Maybe not. But, you get my message, right? Self- Myofascial Release, (SMR), aka foam rolling, stick rolling, ball rolling and more, is truly a miracle technique for softening chronically tight tissue, decreasing serious chronic pain, and improving fitness and sports performance. Through my workshops and fitness lectures, I have discovered that most gym-based fitness enthusiasts know nothing about foam rolling, and if they do see others doing it, they discard it as a waste of time. And yet, all high level athletes and fitness professionals see it as a no brainer, a total necessity. This article hopes to bridge that gap and bring to you a tool that will significantly improve your life.
What is fascia?
It was not until about a decade ago that the concept of fascial tightness and the necessity to release this tightness entered the realm of the fitness professional. A renowned pathologist had been researching and studying the impact of fascia on the human body, and discovered that fascia, a thin connective tissue which covers and winds around muscles, (the translucent tissue that covers your chicken breasts from the store is fascia) is connected throughout the entire body, from your head to your feet. Literally. When he dissected his research cadavers, he found that fascia covered the body like a wetsuit! This means that fascia on the bottom of the foot is attached to fascia at the neck. This occurs in a winding pattern that moves up the body. He called these patterns Myofascial Meridians, and wrote a book called Anatomy Trains. A revolutionary approach to fitness and pain relief thus began.
What causes tight fascia? What happen when fascia becomes too tight?
Humans are genetically engineered to move, and movement is the driver of all internal systems of the body such as the health of the musculoskeletal system, metabolism, digestion, emotional and mental health and more. However, humans of today are very sedentary. This was not a problem hundreds of thousands of years ago, when our ancestors walked, ran, lifted, carried and moved all day just to exist. Our sedentary lives have caused our muscles to weaken and shorten and subsequently, has caused our fascia to wind tightly over muscles, nerves and joints. When fascia becomes tight, it causes pain. Radiating pain, pressure point pain, pain that is not connected to exercise, a torn muscle, tendonitis or an acute injury. Tight fascia is chronic and can come and go with incredible annoyance. We can have tight fascia in our calves and feet, but experience pain in our neck or shoulder. Radiating pain down the side of the legs to the calves can be sciatica, but it also can be fascial tightness. Fascial tightness is essentially unknown to most physicians, so if you go to your doctor with unusual pain without a distinct cause, they will find nothing on x-ray or MRI. You go home frustrated with pain that may peak at night, making sleep impossible, or hold you back from running and exercise. So what do you do? Maybe you stretch? But it doesn’t help. It comes right back. This is because the tissue is highly elastic, and if you try and stretch, it may feel better momentarily, but then snaps back to its old pattern of tightness. You go to the massage therapist, feel better, but again, the pain comes back. Pretty frustrating.
How to use SMR techniques
It’s time to take your pain into your own hands. Since fascia has memory and elasticity, it takes a lot of effort to release and relax the tissue. Sure, if you are a millionaire, you can have massages daily and it can sometimes take care of it. (By the way- only special “trigger point” massage techniques work for myofascial release. Standard techniques don’t work. There are many MT’s who have studied myofascial release/trigger point work and use the proper techniques) But for non-millionaires, daily SMR work using foam rollers, massage sticks, balls and other tools can be a miracle for pain relief. All of my clients foam roll their muscles prior to a warm-up or stretching, and those with pain from tight fascia and muscles roll on a daily basis to loosen the knots and trigger points. You always see high level amateur and professional athletes rolling prior to their sporting events. This is because SMR improves the contractile capability of the muscles, thus improving athletic performance as well.
I recommend 20+ passes across tight areas of the body, although all major areas should be rolled. This includes, thighs, glutes, sides of thighs, calves, groin muscles, low back, upper back, chest and arms. Forearms and calves often have very tight fascia and painful trigger points, so these areas are essential to work on too and can be massaged using massage sticks and small balls. After rolling and self- massage, your muscles are now receptive to stretching and the effects of stretching will last much longer!
The Proof is in the Pudding
Imagine a pain free body? It can happen. But you must commit to the work. Here are 3 case studies that best exemplify how SMR can work.
Kathy (me)- I had radiating pain from my glutes down the side of my thighs into my calves. Often my pain peaked at night, or after long periods of sitting. This was serious enough that I went to my MD, who was convinced I had sciatica and prescribed every test known to medicine. While I had some early degenerative changes in my back, the severity of my pain and the fact it was in both legs was still a mystery. Finally, after years of pain, a physical therapist introduced me to rolling and SMR techniques. A Miracle! My pain has diminished by 90%. And, when it does resurface, I now have the knowledge to get rid of it. Self-care at its best.
Lynn- A new client of mine, Lynn had experienced horrible radiating pain down the side of her thighs and calves which kept her up at night. After evaluating her, I noticed her hips were both weak and tight, signs that fascia may be tight as well. After much convincing, she began foam and stick rolling daily. A chronic achilles tendonitis and plantar fasciitis injury diminished significantly in 1 week. As of today, she has been sleeping pain free for a week. She is now exercising much more regularly as well! Relieving chronic pain is not only a huge load off the physical body, but also the emotional body. Her chronic pain had caused fear and trepidation around exercise and her body.
Janet- She had been experiencing achilles and calf pain for over 6 months, but stretching and exercising never helped, and the pain always came back. I met with her briefly, and we used lacrosse balls and SMR sticks on her calves, after heating the tissue with moist heat. We then stretched the calves, which were loaded with trigger points, most likely from weakness and poor exercise execution. After 1 session, she felt 50% better. She continues to work on this, and has added proper strength work to help her weak areas become strong enough to keep muscle and fascia healthy.