self-myofascial-release-upper-leg

Self Myofascial Release: A Hype that Works (But How?)

Self myofascial release is a popular way to reduce sore muscles and to increase recovery.

It started as a hype with tools like foam rollers and massage sticks. It’s great because you massage your fascia.

However, is this what happens? And does foam rolling really benefit sports performance?

In this blog, you’ll discover that myofascial release does improve sports performance and how you can do it yourself. In the end, I offer more perspective on the foam rolling hype and how to make the most of it.

What is Self Myofascial Release?

Self myofascial release is a form of self-massage using tools like a foam roller or a massage stick.

self-myofascial-release-tool-foam-rollers
self-myofascial release tool massage stick

The idea of foam rolling is to improve blood flow, reduce adhesions, absolve trigger points, and to displace the fascia.

Hence the name self myofascial release.

In my latest blog, I discussed myofascial trigger points. I explained what they are, where to find them, and how they might affect your sports performance.

More importantly, though, I mentioned that there’s still discussion about what the origin of the trigger point phenomenon is. And that there’s no objective way to measure a trigger point.

Which, in this case, makes it hard to say you’re massaging a myofascial trigger point with a foam roller.

More on the contradictory information around myofascial trigger points and foam rolling at the end of this article.

Because regardless of the way foam rolling affects your body, self myofascial release does have some excellent benefits.

The Benefits of Self Myofascial Release

Self myofascial release is a new performance-enhancing strategy. As a result, there’s relatively little scientific research into the subject.

But, there is consistency in the benefits of foam rolling. Below are 5 interesting advantages of self myofascial release.

1. Increases Range of Motion

Foam rolling increases range of motion.1–4 This effect was found in ankle, hip, and shoulder flexibility.

Still, using a foam roller wasn’t more effective than static stretching.5 The thing is though, that static stretching reduces performance right after. And this is something you don’t want during a warming-up.

2. No Negative Impact of Sports Performance

The beautiful thing about foam rolling therefore, is that unlike static stretching, it doesn’t impair athletic performance.6,7 This makes it a great tool to use for short bouts of time before training or competition.

So, how long should you roll during a warming-up?

There’s no set protocol (yet) for foam rolling but these are things you can consider:

  • A warming-up has a limited amount of time
  • You should focus your rolling on the muscles you’re going to use in your sport
  • Roll rather shorter than longer to gain maximum effect in the least amount of time

I recommend rolling up to 1 minute and then move on to the next muscle.

3. Improves Force Output

As I mentioned before foam rolling doesn’t affect sports performance negatively.

Even more so, there’s some evidence that foam rolling increases force output. One study, for example, found that participants performed better on the squat jump test.6

Another study measured with an Electro-Myography (EMG) that the maximum force output of the calf muscles went up after a foam rolling session.8

4. Speeds Up Recovery

Some studies show that foam rolling after exercise reduces the amount of Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) or simply, sore muscles.1,9,10

Why does this happen?

On the one side, this might be due to an increase in blood flow which helps to clear out waste products of training like lactate. And on the other side, the massage might modulate pain signals to the brain.

5. Reduces Perceived Instability

A small study in adolescent tennis players found that foam rolling increases range of motion but decreases perceived instability. While having no negative effect on serving power and acceleration.11

I found this study particularly interesting because it looked at functional outcomes for the tested individuals. As things go, flexibility is only worth so much if you can’t translate it to your specific sports performance.

Now you have an idea of the benefits of self myofascial release, are you ready to try it?

Here’s how.

How to do Self Myofascial Release

As I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, popular self myofascial tools are the foam roller and massage stick. But a lacrosse ball or a tennis ball are often used as well. These balls are smaller objects and allow you to penetrate deeper into your musculature than with a foam roller.

Yet, these haven’t been used in scientific research. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use them but I do want to say this:

Because a tennis ball or lacrosse ball helps you go deeper into your musculature it makes your self-massage a more intense. As a result, it increases the chance of muscle damage. Thus, if you use self-myofascial massage a warming-up tool, don’t use the balls.

Now that’s resolved, let’s have a look at how to use a foam roller.

These are the things you should consider:

  • Always move in the direction of your muscle fibers
  • Try to relax your body while you massage yourself
  • Move slowly
  • More pain doesn’t mean more effect
  • Painful areas can be a sign of tension and are worth a little more rolling
  • Don’t force in painful areas as more pain leads to a tensioning reflex (imagine when someone wants to hit you in the stomach, you automatically tense your abdomen) which in turn tenses your muscles instead of relaxing them
  • Roll up to 1 minute before exercise and up to 5 minutes post-exercise.

The contraindications for self myofascial release (when not to do it):

  • Active inflammation
  • Muscle strain or sprain
  • Recent (stress) fracture
  • Fever
  • Not feeling well
  • Nausea

Here are 6 useful self myofascial release exercises with a foam roller:

1. Quadriceps

self myofascial release quadriceps
Start
End

2. Self Myofascial Release Hamstring

Keep your knee bend while foam rolling your hamstrings. This way they stay loose and it’s easier to penetrate the muscle.

self myofascial release hamstring beginning
Start
self myofascial release hamstring end
End

3. Self Myofascial Release Calf Muscles

foam roller calf muscles
Start
End

4. Pectoralis Minor

This is an excellent foam rolling exercise for people that sit a lot.

foam rolling pectoralis minor
Move up and down.

5. Glutes

foam rolling glutes

6. How to Use a Your Foam Roller as Massage Stick

If you don’t have a massage stick you can use your foam roller as one. Use a broom or something similar to self-massage in a different way.

foam roller as massage stick

A Critical Note on Self Myofascial Release

As I mentioned at the beginning there’s contradictory information around foam rolling. I believe this is partly due to the hype that revolved around its conception, but also due to the little research that has gone into this tool.

Fascia and connective tissue have become a popular area of treatment. Yet, like with trigger points, there’s no proof that foam rolling does something to the fascia.12 Besides that, scientific research that looked if foam rolling displaced the aponeuroses (a sheet of connective tissue which is similar to a flat tendon) in the lower leg. Equally, they found no change in the length of the connective tissue.13

So, when someone argues that foam rolling is good for your fascia, it isn’t based on facts.

But just like the trigger point issue, for you as an athlete and sports enthusiast the results are more important than the underlying mechanism.

Take-Home Messages

Foam rolling is a great tool for warming-up and post-exercise. It improves range of motion and it might improve recovery, increase force output, and reduce perceived instability.

The mechanism for these effects isn’t known and there is no proof that self-myofascial release does something with your fascia.

This means that even though the name self-myofascial release could be wrong, the positive effects on your sports performance are real.

Now to you, have you ever tried foam rolling? How did you like it, and what did you experience after? I’d love to hear your perspective. Comment below and let me know.

Citations

  1. Beardsley C, Skarabot J. Effects of self-myofascial release: A systematic review. J Bodyw Mov Ther. 2015;19(4):747-758. doi:10.1016/j.jbmt.2015.08.007
  2. Cheatham SW, Kolber MJ, Cain M, Lee M. THE EFFECTS OF SELF‐MYOFASCIAL RELEASE USING A FOAM ROLL OR ROLLER MASSAGER ON JOINT RANGE OF MOTION, MUSCLE RECOVERY, AND PERFORMANCE: A SYSTEMATIC REVIEW. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2015;10(6):827-838.
  3. Kalichman L, Ben David C. Effect of self-myofascial release on myofascial pain, muscle flexibility, and strength: A narrative review. J Bodyw Mov Ther. 2017;21(2):446-451. doi:10.1016/j.jbmt.2016.11.006
  4. Fairall RR, Cabell L, Boergers RJ, Battaglia F. Acute effects of self-myofascial release and stretching in overhead athletes with GIRD. J Bodyw Mov Ther. 2017;21(3):648-652. doi:10.1016/j.jbmt.2017.04.001
  5. Škarabot J, Beardsley C, Štirn I. Comparing the effects of self-myofascial release with static stretching on ankle range-of-motion in adolescent athletes. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2015;10(2):203-212.
  6. Richman ED, Tyo BM, Nicks CR. Combined Effects of Self-Myofascial Release and Dynamic Stretching on Range of Motion, Jump, Sprint, and Agility Performance. J Strength Cond Res. 2019;33(7):1795-1803. doi:10.1519/JSC.0000000000002676
  7. Shalfawi SAI, Enoksen E, Myklebust H. Acute Effect of Quadriceps Myofascial Tissue Rolling Using A Mechanical Self-Myofascial Release Roller-Massager on Performance and Recovery in Young Elite Speed Skaters. Sports. 2019;7(12):246. doi:10.3390/sports7120246
  8. MacDonald, GZ, Penney, MDH, Mullaley, ME, Cuconato, AL, Drake, CDJ, Behm, DG, and Button D. An acute bout of self-myofascial release increases range of motion without a subsequent decrease in muscle activation or force. J Strength Cond Res. 2013:812-821.
  9. Laffaye G, Da Silva DT, Delafontaine A. Self-Myofascial Release Effect With Foam Rolling on Recovery After High-Intensity Interval Training. Front Physiol. 2019;10(October). doi:10.3389/fphys.2019.01287
  10. Schroeder AN, Best TM. Is self-myofascial release an effective pre-exercise and recovery strategy? A literature review. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2015;14(3):200-208. doi:10.1249/JSR.0000000000000148
  11. Le Gal J, Begon M, Gillet B, Rogowski I. Effects of Self-Myofascial Release on Shoulder Function and Perception in Adolescent Tennis Players. J Sport Rehabil. 2018;27(6):530-535. doi:10.1123/jsr.2016-0240
  12. Behm DG, Wilke J. Do Self-Myofascial Release Devices Release Myofascia? Rolling Mechanisms: A Narrative Review. Sports Med. 2019;49(8):1173-1181. doi:10.1007/s40279-019-01149-y
  13. Yoshimura A, Inami T, Schleip R, Mineta S, Shudo K, Hirose N. Effects of Self-myofascial Release Using a Foam Roller on Range of Motion and Morphological Changes in Muscle: A Crossover Study. J Strength Cond Res. May 2019. doi:10.1519/JSC.0000000000003196

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