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Foam Rolling and Myofascial Release for Recovery

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Sara Kooperman, JDSara Kooperman, JD

Foam rolling, also known as self-myofascial release, is a method that has transformed from a once mysterious performance technique used only by professional athletes, coaches and therapists, to a familiar practice used daily in gyms for many types of training and performance enhancement. Self-myofascial release (SMR) is a safe and very effective hands-on technique that involves applying gentle, sustained pressure into the myofascial connective tissue to help eliminate muscle and soft tissue restrictions, support recovery, eliminate pain and restore range of motion.

Fascia is the connective tissue that holds muscles together throughout the body. Individuals of all levels of fitness have adopted foam rolling into their routine for enhanced performance, a speedier recovery time between workouts and better overall training results. Self-myofascial release or SMR as it is abbreviated, is a term used to indicate self-massage and can be used synonymously with foam rolling.

Recent information, new technology and affordable product designs have introduced an increasing array of foam rollers and other self-massage products for improved training and recovery into the consumer market. Foam rolling can be performed with a roller, a ball, the hands, or many other products by applying pressure to specific points on the muscles or soft tissues of the body using a systematic approach. Through this simple method, it is possible to aid in the recovery of muscles and assist them in returning to a more relaxed state; and therefore, normal function. Normal function means muscles are elastic, healthy, and ready to perform.

The Role of Recovery

The magic of training for fitness and sport occurs in between and after the workout. The workout is the stimulus for change; therefore, recovery both post-workout and between workouts is essential for both competitive and recreational athletes alike to find homeostasis and gain the necessary improvements in strength, cardiovascular conditioning or other benefits desired. Recovery is not a one size fits all method. An appropriate recovery program should be individualized for each individual and take into consideration:

  • Age;
  • Gender;
  • Current fitness level;
  • Volume/intensity of training;
  • Type of training.

Please remember that lack of time for adequate recovery puts athletes at risk for decreased performance, burnout and injury. In fact, exercise physiologists have identified particular types of overtraining: Functional and Non-functional Overreaching (FOR & NFOR) as well as Overtraining Syndrome. Signs and symptoms of overtraining syndrome include increased fatigue, lower fitness and athletic performance, muscular and physiological stress, sleeplessness, interrupted sleep cycles, appetite issues, heart rate variability, dehydration and many others.

Overtraining is a process that can result in overreaching. Functional overreaching may be used as a stimulus to add an extra push into an athlete's program or routine, which is particularly helpful when competition is forthcoming. So, although this type of overtraining may be helpful, it needs to be closely monitored. Non-functional overreaching is when this over training concept is taken too far for too long, and the athlete does not benefit from the additional stress but experiences diminished performance because of the lack of recovery, likely even long-term injury. Strategies for boosting acute and chronic recovery include among many things such as foam rolling and self-massage.

How Foam Rolling Works

The deep compression of self-myofascial release allows for consistent blood flow to the deep and superficial muscles of the body, and aids in the restoration process and recovery from exercise of healthy tissue. The body naturally wants to be healthy and strong, but often with training, poor posture, nutritional deficiencies, dehydration and other lifestyle factors, an extra boost is needed to achieve optimal muscle and tissue health. When the compression of the rolling or massage device is applied to a specific area of the body, blood flow is cut off or obstructed. This creates a blood flow deficit. However, when the tissue is released, blow flows back into the area with more pressure, flushing the tissue with oxygenrich blood and other nutrients removing waste products. This flush-back effect not only causes more nutrient-rich blood to flow back into the area, it also allows for the release of toxins. It also decreases the tendency for adhesions to develop by addressing the fascia. The foam roller or other self-massage tool can work as an external device to release pressure and increase blood flow in these local, muscular areas.

The Benefits of Foam Rolling

Foam rolling can be an important part of total body recovery, the dynamic warm up or the transition out of an exercise session. The overall benefits of foam rolling can include but are not limited to the following:

  • Corrects Muscle Imbalances - Rolling can help with muscular tightness, which may in turn relieve the imbalance between muscle groups or agonist and antagonist muscles (for example a tight hamstring (agonist) may limit the range of motion in the quadriceps (antagonist).
  • Improved Tissue Tolerance - Foam rolling and self-massage can improve the toughness and density of muscle tissues, which is why with repeated rolling, denser rollers and harder surfaces are necessary to achieve the same benefits.
  • Improves Joint Range of Motion (ROM) - Self-massages using a small ball performed on the bottom of the foot may enable greater extension of the toes and the ankle joint allowing for a greater range of motion through that area.
  • Decreases Muscle Soreness and Pain - Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) has many causes. Foam rolling can help with tissue massage, which can bring more blood flow to the muscle group(s) needing healing and recovery. This will decrease the duration of DOMS and the potential for muscle or joint pain caused by activity.
  • Enhances Performance - Releasing trigger points can help to reestablish proper movement patterns and pain free movement, ultimately with the goal of enhancing overall performance.
  • Promotes Circulation - Foam rolling and self-massage techniques can be used to promote circulation and the flushing of metabolic waste products. Total body rolling post-workout can serve to begin the recovery process.
  • Trigger Points - Foam rolling can be used to release muscle tightness in the muscles and fascia of the body. These muscular and fascial adhesions are also known as trigger points. Releasing trigger points helps to reestablish proper movement patterns and pain free movement, and ultimately, to enhance performance. Many trigger point therapies attempt to shut down pain signals with sustained pressure to the area. These techniques can result in a disruption of long-term restrictions, which can contribute immensely to inefficient and even painful movement patterns causing joints and tissues to work much harder to attain the ranges of motion crucial to movement success. Many times, these inefficiencies due to muscle restrictions, can lead to inflammatory responses in muscles and fascia. To understand what a trigger point is, imagine a bungee cord with a knot tied into it. Envision stretching the cord which creates tension, thus stretching the unknotted portion of the cord representing the muscle and the attachment points (tendons and possible ligaments). The knot, however, has remained unaltered. Using a foam roller or other self-massage device can assist in breaking up these muscle knots resuming normal blood flow and function to the soft tissues. The goal of this corrective recovery technique is to get the athlete or fitness enthusiast back to the point of pain free, normal functioning.

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