Self-Myofascial Release (or, basic repair & maintenance for the athlete’s body)

Most athletic injuries are soft-tissue, rather than bone or joint, injuries.  It might surprise you to learn that of soft-tissue injuries, most athletes actually experience connective tissue, rather than muscular, injuries.  This highlights the importance of learning how to incorporate activities in training that help prevent and repair damage, as well as build elasticity and resilience, in connective tissues.

Connective tissue forms the basic framework and support structure for the body’s tissues and organs.  Tendons and ligaments are examples of connective tissue; even cartilage and bone are specialized forms of connective tissue. Soft tissue, a term given to the tissues that surround, support or connect structures of the body, includes skin, muscles, tendons, ligaments, fascia, fat, nerves and blood vessels. Fascia, from the Latin word for “band,” is the soft tissue component of connective tissue and surrounds the body’s various structures, including muscles.

Trigger points are essentially muscular “knots” or “hot spots,” and often begin as micro-tears in a muscle.  The recurring break-down and repair cycle associated with repeated bouts of exercise can create inelastic scar tissue, resulting in stiffness or pain that may not respond to simple stretching.  Left untreated, trigger points not only compromise the affected tissue, but also place demands on “upstream or downstream” body parts to compensate for the weakness.  Quads, hamstrings, IT bands and calves are common trouble spots for runners, while lifters might find triceps, upper back or traps more problematic.  Whatever the weakness, left untreated, these trouble spots can lead to reduced comfort, range of motion and performance.

Self-myofascial release (SMR) is a simple way to alleviate trigger points and improve connective tissue function.  Common tools for SMR include inexpensive and readily available foam rollers or lacrosse balls, highlighting one of the most compelling reasons to become familiar with this technique — convenience and price!

Not long ago, athletes and trainers would have scoffed at the idea of using foam rollers, sticks or lacrosse balls for body maintenance and repair.  However, widespread acceptance of the benefits of hand-on therapies such as Active Release Therapy (ART), Muscle Activation Technique (MAT), acupressure, chiropractic care, physical therapy, and massage for improving range of motion and performance has made “flexibility, mobility and recovery” part of the athlete’s vocabulary.  While one can have a healthy respect for the benefits of hands-on therapy, many recreational athletes do not have the financial resources to take advantage of the wide range of healing modalities available.  Consider SMR the poor man’s sports massage.  Balls, sticks and rollers can be used to before training to prepare for movement as well as after training to assist in recovery.

Although not difficult to learn, there are just a few general guidelines for performing the SMR techniques with foam rollers or lacrosse balls:

  • Gentle SMR may be used prior to a warm-up while more aggressive SMR can follow a workout and precede static stretching.
  • Expect some discomfort.  This will subside with regular sessions, as the adhesions break down and the purpose transitions from repair to maintenance of soft tissues.
  • Basically, you will place a foam roller or lacrosse ball between you and the floor and then use body weight to apply pressure.
  • Roll slowly back and forth, spending one or two minutes on each area to be worked.
  • When a hot spot or trigger point is located, spend an additional 30 seconds applying pressure directly over the hot spot, itself.
  • Avoid rolling over joints and bony areas.

For Further Reading or Viewing:

  • Mobility WOD : “Every human being should be able to perform basic maintenance on themselves;” a blog by Kelly Starrett, DPT with almost-daily videos (always short) addressing joint mobility; this site is a gem.
  • Trigger Point Performance Therapy: This site has a lot of useful information for anyone interested in taking responsibility for their bio-mechanical well-being; products include rollers and balls for self-massage and educational books and DVDs.

Sources for foam rollers or body rolling therapy balls (search for “foam rollers,” “myofascial release,” “lacrosse balls,” etc.):

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