Rolling it out
Self-myofascial release is self-administered massage through the use of a foam roller, theracane, massage ball or portable massage stick (1). Since 2005, the market for self-massage tools has exploded, with foam roller supply becoming a multi-million-dollar industry. Commercial gyms world-wide have furnished themselves with an array of self-massage equipment (2).
Now we will discuss the science behind self-myofascial release therapy and why it should be included in training programs.
The quick rise in popularity
Hitting the gym floor in the early 2000’s, the appeal for self-massage tools stemmed from cost effectiveness, as you don’t need a massage clinician to lie on a foam roller. Early studies supported claims that foam rolling increased joint range of motion and reduced muscle stiffness (3,4). In turn, the popularity of self-myofascial release expanded into the sporting community and athletes traded their dencorub ointment for the massage ball.
Anecdotal reports indicate that athletes perform better when frequently completing self-massage. However, until recently, the underlying physiological mechanisms responsible have remained murky.
Research on this topic is still in its infancy. Scientists are only just starting to understand the true relationship between myofascial release and enhanced athletic performance.
Early studies of self-massage confirmed that it increases joint range of motion and this is still considered the primary role of myofascial release today (3,4). Myofascial release directly targets connective tissue called “fascia”, a fibrous collagenous substance that surrounds and interconnects every muscle and organ of the body (5). Fascia is heavily involved in movement biomechanics, force output and muscle contraction, and is thought to join muscle groups together, creating a “body wide force transmission system” (1,5).
The interconnectivity of fascia means that myofascial release has cascading, body-wide effects on mobility and movement efficiency, even when applied to only one region of the body. A 2015 study by Grieve et al, confirmed the integrative nature of fascia, recording improved “sit and reach” test scores (hamstring flexibility) after myofascial release applied to the plantar fascia (arch of the foot). These results suggest a “continuity of fascia through the lower limb” and that self-myofascial release can affect flexibility across multiple joints despite being applied to only one muscle site. (6,7).
How does it work?
Myofascial release techniques are thought to affect fascia through two mechanisms:
Mechanical: Releasing “trigger points” while simultaneously placing a joint through a range of motion (e.g. flexing and extending the knee whilst the foam roller is in contact with the thigh) is thought to release myofascial adhesions. This leads to increased tissue compliance and range of motion (8). Myofascial release also reduces muscle stiffness through promoting blood flow to the target tissue and temporarily changing fascial water content, thus acutely increasing tissue pliability and helping ease pain associated with muscle soreness. (1).
Neurophysiological: It is theorised that fascial tissue possess Golgi receptors similar to those found at joint tendinous junctions (1). These receptors regulate muscle length and can limit range of motion by restricting the stretch response. Myofascial release inhibits these Golgi reflexes and changes motor unit firing rates, allowing a greater global stretch tolerance and parasympathetic tone (9). Put simply, self-massage may reduce tension created by the nervous system, reducing muscle tension and increasing range of motion (1,8).
Interestingly, the current consensus is that neurophysiological changes are responsible for the performance benefits of self-myofascial release, as the mechanical pressure needed to induce tissue deformation exceeds normal physiological ranges. That is, the pressure from a foam roller is not enough to cause fascial breakdown, so it is more likely a neural response to myofascial release that causes muscle relaxation (10).
As fascia is so strong, it is more likely that changes in tissue compliance from myofascial release techniques occur due to increased blood flow, changes in fluid content and shifts in neural stimulation. These changes promote feelings of muscle relaxation and allow for noticeable increases in range of motion after a single bout of self-myofascial release (8).
So why jump on a foam roller or massage ball?
Self-myofascial release is a viable tool for increasing range of motion throughout all major joint structures. In athletes, increasing range of motion decreases muscle imbalances and greatly diminishes injury risk (1,6,7). By extension, pre-exercise myofascial release helps to prepare an athlete for the physical demands of training or competition by promoting tissue blood flow, increasing movement efficiency and reducing pain associated with injuries or muscle soreness.
Some have speculated that self-myofascial release before exercise dampens power output. However, studies show that pre-exercise myofascial release increases athlete preparedness and reduces perceived fatigue without any negative altercations to neuromuscular force output (11,12). There is even evidence to suggest that myofascial release produces better length-tension relationships between muscle fibres, enhancing contraction potential (1). Myofascial release allows for enhanced movement efficiency, so athletes who are structurally imbalanced can activate more motor units after self-massage, increasing force potential.
Self-myofascial release also increases parasympathetic tone, thereby supporting relaxation and athletic recovery. Prolonged myofascial release reduces cardiac load and blood cortisol levels, while increasing endorphin, oxytocin and serotonin levels (13). This has a relaxing effect, aids in sleep initiation, supports immunity and reduces anxiety levels (14). Studies have also found that myofascial release increases pain tolerance, reduces delayed muscle soreness and may actually help arterial blood flow and endothelial cell function (1,15).
Self-myofascial release within a training program:
Most of the benefits of fascial manipulation are expressed during exercise, so an athlete’s self-massage should occur pre-training to increase range of motion and prepare the tissue for further mobilisation.
Release techniques are most commonly used in line with muscle fibre orientation (e.g. applying a straight line of pressure down the calf with foam roller) or by placing undulating pressure across the line of the tissue (e.g. rolling a massage ball from the lateral to medial aspect of the calf).
The relaxing effects of myofascial release are enhanced when completed for long durations, with high amounts of pressure (1,13). However, relaxation is not usually practical pre-exercise, so myofascial release before training should target musculature in a functional manner.
The “Pin and stretch” is a good example of pre-exercise self-myofascial release technique, whereby traction is placed on a trigger point whilst undergoing full range of motion. This can help an athlete isolate fascial adhesions and optimise sport specific range of motion (e.g. a basketballer placing pressure on the VMO with a massage ball whilst undergoing concurrent knee flexion and extension).
- Self-myofascial release is a cost effective massage tool that increases joint range of motion by manipulating connective tissue known as fascia.
- The neurophysiological effects of self-massage have the greatest impact on performance.
- Self-myofascial release is best used pre-training to enhance physical preparedness or as a recovery tool to induce parasympathetic activity.
- The “pin and stretch” technique is particularly effective pre-training.
- Beardsley, C. and Škarabot, J. (2015). Effects of self-myofascial release: A systematic review. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, 19(4), pp.747-758.
- Posts, A. (2017). The History of the Foam Roller. [online] Physical Culture Study. Available at: https://physicalculturestudy.com/2016/02/02/the-history-of-the-foam-roller/ [Accessed 5 Apr. 2017].
- MIKESKY, A., BAHAMONDE, R., STANTON, K., ALVEY, T. and FITTON, T. (2002). Acute Effects of The Stick on Strength, Power, and Flexibility. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 16(3), pp.446-450.
- Mohr, A., Long, B. and Goad, C. (2014). Effect of Foam Rolling and Static Stretching on Passive Hip-Flexion Range of Motion. Journal of Sport Rehabilitation, 23(4), pp.296-299.
- Schleip, R. and Müller, D. (2013). Training principles for fascial connective tissues: Scientific foundation and suggested practical applications. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, 17(1), pp.103-115.
- Grieve, R., Goodwin, F., Alfaki, M., Bourton, A., Jeffries, C. and Scott, H. (2015). The immediate effect of bilateral self-myofascial release on the plantar surface of the feet on hamstring and lumbar spine flexibility: A pilot randomised controlled trial. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, 19(3), pp.544-552.
- Vigotsky, A., Lehman, G., Contreras, B., Beardsley, C., Chung, B. and Feser, E. (2015). Acute effects of anterior thigh foam rolling on hip angle, knee angle, and rectus femoris length in the modified Thomas test. PeerJ, 3, p.e1281.
- Monteiro, E., Cavanaugh, M., Frost, D. and Novaes, J. (2017). Is self-massage an effective joint range-of-motion strategy? A pilot study. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, 21(1), pp.223-226.
- Tozzi, P. (2012). Selected fascial aspects of osteopathic practice. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, 16(4), pp.503-519.
- Chaudhry, H., Schleip, R., Ji, Z., Bukiet, B., Maney, M. and Findley, T. (2008). Three-Dimensional Mathematical Model for Deformation of Human Fasciae in Manual Therapy. The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, 108(8), p.379.
- Healey, K., Hatfield, D., Blanpied, P., Dorfman, L. and Riebe, D. (2014). The Effects of Myofascial Release With Foam Rolling on Performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 28(1), pp.61-68.
- MacDonald, G., Penney, M., Mullaley, M., Cuconato, A., Drake, C., Behm, D. and Button, D. (2013). An Acute Bout of Self-Myofascial Release Increases Range of Motion Without a Subsequent Decrease in Muscle Activation or Force. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 27(3), pp.812-821.
- Chan, Y., Wang, T., Chang, C., Chen, L., Chu, H., Lin, S. and Chang, S. (2015). Short-term effects of self-massage combined with home exercise on pain, daily activity, and autonomic function in patients with myofascial pain dysfunction syndrome. Journal of Physical Therapy Science, 27(1), pp.217-221.
- Kim, K., Park, S., Goo, B. and Choi, S. (2014). Effect of Self-myofascial Release on Reduction of Physical Stress: A Pilot Study. Journal of Physical Therapy Science, 26(11), pp.1779-1781.
- Cavanaugh, M., Döweling, A., Young, J., Quigley, P., Hodgson, D., Whitten, J., Reid, J., Aboodarda, S. and Behm, D. (2016). An acute session of roller massage prolongs voluntary torque development and diminishes evoked pain. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 117(1), pp.109-117.