Self Myofascial Release, to Foam Roll or Not to Foam Roll?
What is self myofascial release?
Self myofascial release is a type of soft tissue mobility where muscle bellies and their surrounding fascia are compressed causing stretch and friction forces over the tissues. The most common method of performing self myofascial release is the standard foam roller which is often seen in gyms and clinics around the world, however there are other objects, tools, and devices you can utilize if you do not have access to a foam roller. That being said, most of the research today has focused on foam rolling with their subjects as the primary method of self myofascial release which is what I will reference in this article.
The effects of self myofascial release.
Before jumping into the beneficial effects of foam rolling it is important to understand when you should do it and for how long. To start, foam rolling can be performed either before or after exercise depending on the treatment effect you are looking to achieve. To start I will first break down pre-exercise myofascial release, in particular, foam rolling. The most widely accepted benefit of foam rolling pre-exercise is its ability to improve short term joint range of motion and flexibility. You should then use foam rolling as part of your warm up routine when being able to incorporate full range of motion is required for success in the activity or event. You then may ask, “does it help or hinder performance?” Foam rolling does not necessarily improve performance, although it has been shown to improve sprint performance in elite level sprinters, but it also doesn’t negatively affect performance. That is critical to understand because some individuals may be wary of foam rolling prior to an event if they feel it may negatively affect the way they are able to perform. Lastly, it has also been shown to increase blood flow which I feel can be interpreted in a couple of ways. First, prior to performing it is important to warm up to increase heart rate and perfusion to tissues to prime them for an event. So, if foam rolling has been shown to increase blood flow to local tissues, I feel that gives you another reason to incorporate it as part of your warm up routine.
Let’s now change gears and begin discussing the post-exercise effects of foam rolling. The largest effect seen with foam rolling after exercise is its ability to decrease delayed onset muscle soreness i.e. DOMS. Everybody at some point has gone through a very physically demanding workout and paid the price over the next few days with muscle soreness. That sensation of soreness is DOMS. So next time you have some soreness after exercising, try foam rolling and see if it gives you some pain relief. Foam rolling post exercise has also been shown to improve recovery with sprint and strength activities. This is another benefit that can be very useful for athletes if they are performing multiple times a day or week and need quick recovery to continue performing at a high level. So next time you are sitting around just relaxing, try getting out that foam roller to enhance your recovery.
When discussing dosage for self myofascial release there is no one size fits all, but there are a couple of parameters to think about. For one, how long should you do it. We recommend at least one minute per muscle group, but performing 90-120 seconds is optimal if you do not have any time constraints to worry about. How frequently you perform it is somewhat up to you. If you are doing it before exercise, then everyday before exercising it can be done. If you only want to do it for recovery I recommend doing it after each workout or whenever you are feeling sore from a previous workout. But most of all, find what works best for you and implement it to achieve your desired results.
What is happening when you foam roll?
The exact mechanism of effect for foam rolling is not well understood at this time but we will discuss a few theories presented in research. For one, it is believed that the increased range of motion with foam rolling may be due to decreased stiffness and improved pliability in the muscle and surrounding fascia from alterations in fascia’s thixotropic properties. It is also thought that the friction and increased temperature with foam rolling breaks ups scar tissue and adhesions allowing for increased motion. Lastly, It is believed that foam rolling is able to affect both the central and peripheral nervous systems which allows for increased stretch tolerance in the muscle similar to static stretching. The nervous system effects are also thought to play a role in decreasing delayed onset muscle soreness. Again, this is all just hypothesized at this time and it may be years before we know the exact mechanism behind the benefits of foam rolling.
How we do it at AFI!
Earlier I mentioned there are many other ways to perform self myofascial release outside of a foam roller. One method that we use very frequently at AFI is a firm medicine ball. A firm medicine ball allows you to pinpoint areas of restriction and be more focused with your myofascial release when compared with a standard foam roller which is more broad. We also use lacrosse balls which are even more specific than a medicine ball. Lacrosse balls are great when working in the deep intrinsic muscles of the foot or rotator cuff muscles of the shoulder that are very small. That being said, the possibilities for self myofascial release are endless, ranging from different foam roller variations and PVC pipes to steel balls and even billiard balls. You do not need to go down a rabbit hole with all the different options, instead, find something that works for you and what you need to accomplish and see how it can benefit you in your high performance life.
Below are some video ideas to try at home.
Written by Dr. Connor Meyerhoeffer, PT, DPT, CSCS