Written by Deb Preachuk. Deb Preachuk has 30 years experience in the exercise, health, wellness, and fitness field and is the owner of PainFree Posture MN.
One of the simplest and most effective ways an athlete can care for their body is to incorporate self myofascial release (SMR) techniques into their training programs.
Current research suggests that SMR is an important and useful protocol to include in an athletic warm up and cool down, since it helps prepare the body for movement and accelerates recovery.
Learning how to perform basic SMR techniques on oneself and investing in a preventative healthcare “toolbox” of equipment can help an athlete reduce chances of repetitive stress injury, minimize muscular imbalances and improve overall flexibility, function and athletic performance.
As a Corrective Exercise Specialist, I believe all athletes should acquire a simple understanding of how the fascial matrix affects the bod, and how to care for and keep it healthy.
Fascia is a sheet or band of fibrous connective tissue that envelopes, separates or binds together muscles, organs and other soft structures of the body. It forms webs or bands under the skin to attach, stabilize, surround and separate muscles and internal organs. Fascia has a contractile ability, meaning it can contract, relax and move on its own (1). Fascia is an extensive sensory organ that can be found intertwined throughout the entire body.
After assessing body position and function, SMR is the first thing I teach my students to do BEFORE we start the process of applying corrective exercises. It is crucial to recondition the soft tissue structures damaged and stressed from previous injuries or musculoskeletal dysfunction (2). Any kind of overload and stress takes a cumulative toll on a person —think bio-psycho-social. The fascia can dehydrate and form adhesions, also known as knots, as a result of immobilization from acute injury, repetitive micro-trauma due to musculoskeletal imbalances and chronic inflammation.
Chronic pain can sometimes be situated directly over the injury site; but because it affects the entire kinetic chain, the pain very often radiates away from the injury site to other areas of the body. It is possible to experience chronic pain as a result of tissue restrictions and resulting dehydration in the fascial matrix. Restrictions and trigger-points, specific points on the body that elicit pain from touch or pressure, that are left unattended to can, over time, cause or further contribute to already present postural imbalances and limitations in movement function (3).
Massage has been used in one form or another to promote health, relieve stress and reduce pain as long as there is recorded history, so SMR isn’t entirely a new idea. However, SMR has gained widespread popularity with athletes of all ages and abilities over the past decade. It is important to note that SMR is not the same as having a licensed manual therapist work on your body. However, there is a growing body of research that supports the benefits of self-applied, tool-assisted massage techniques. While the efficacy through type of application — hands-on manual therapy versus tool-assisted self application — is hotly debated by scholars and practitioners in the field of manual therapy, the majority of fitness enthusiasts, coaches and trainers have incorporated it into their training protocols (4, 5).
Most people incorrectly associate SMR with foam rolling. However, in my opinion, SMR should not be limited to foam rolling since that is just one type of SMR technique and tool available. There is a wide variety of products and DIY tools of size, shape, texture and density that can be used.
Benefits of SMR
SMR helps address many systems of the body including the fascia, muscles, nerves, skin and blood vessels. The basic idea is that through the assistance of tools, an individual can self massage and help break up and dissipate knots or restrictions in the fascia and muscle tissue surrounding it. It is theorized that by breaking up these restrictions, the muscle fibers are positioned in better alignment along the natural lines of the muscle fibers, allowing the gliding surface of the fascia to move freely (6).
By regularly performing SMR, an athlete can assist in correcting muscle imbalances. Benefits include (7,8,9):
- Muscle relaxation: SMR helps reduce and eliminate stored tension in muscles, which aids in alleviating aches and pains.
- Suppression or reduction of trigger point sensitivity and pain: SMR promotes the release of endorphins to help reduce pain.
- Reduced soreness and improved tissue recovery: SMR increases circulation, allowing oxygen and other nutrients to reach the muscles and other soft tissues.
- Improved joint range of motion, which helps restore optimal length-tension relationships: SMR helps prepare joints for increased range of motion and loads that accompany stretching, strengthening and other dynamic movement exercises.
- Reduced adhesions and scar tissue that improves the elasticity of muscles and other soft tissues, to improve movement and reduce pain.
- Regulation of the production of compounds called cytokines, which play a role in decreasing inflammation.
- Increased activity in the mitochondria of cells, helping promote repair and growth of muscle tissue.
- Improved neuromuscular efficiency.
- Decreased neuromuscular hypertonicity.
- Decreased overall effects of stress on the human movement system.
SMR is easy to learn, but not all athletes may understand the process and application, and it is not for everyone. Those with chronic conditions or disease such as skin lesions or lacerations, eczema, sunburns or contagious skin conditions, advanced diabetes, osteoporosis or undergoing chemotherapy should consult their doctor before trying SMR.
It is important to know that the type of tool being used can be a deal maker or breaker. I often find people using equipment that is too hard in density, or ill suited for a particular area. It is common for individuals trying to learn on their own to jump onto a high density foam roller without really knowing what they are doing, or how to do it.
Using the wrong equipment size or density can result in a person experiencing more tension, which ironically can further increase pain and makes them more likely to avoid or quit programming all together. Having softer equipment available in your preventative healthcare toolbox is worth investing in. Harder tools will work better only after the body becomes more familiar with the techniques and application SMR tools.
Personally, there are times when I’ve done longer and more intense CrossFit WODs that leave me with fairly severe delayed onset muscle soreness. It’s those days that I pull out my softer equipment, so I can assist my body with recovery without increasing my discomfort.
Learning how to use slow and consistent pressure and diaphragmatic breathing as a release technique, combined with ways to work on the tissue (pressure wave, oscillation, cross-friction) can facilitate a much better response in the body, versus just lying on the equipment, or moving too quickly without focus over it.
Additionally, more is not better. SMR should be relatively short in duration. I use a general guideline of two minutes per area before moving to the next area.
Make your fascial health and mobility a priority in your training routine. Consider taking a class taught by a pro who specializes in the field, hiring a coach to teach you the basics, subscribing to a site that specializes in SMR techniques or buying/borrowing books on the subject.
And last be sure to remember that your nutrition, hydration, stress levels and sleep all contribute to accelerating or slowing down your rehab and recovery. Your muscles and connective tissue are made up of a high percentage of water. This means you need to make hydration a priority in addition to proper nutrition and supplementation.
All combined, SMR can truly benefit an athlete and help keep you pain-free, fully mobile and able to perform your best.
- "Fascia." (n.d.) American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. (2011). November 24. 2015.
- "How to Alleviate Muscle and Joint Pain with Self Myo-fascial Release." Justin Price. April 14, 2016.
- "Trigger-point." (n.d.). The American Heritage® Stedman's Medical Dictionary. November 22, 2015.
- <"Foam Rolling." M. Boyle. 2007, November 13, 2007.
- "Foam rolling and self-myofascial release." C. Beardsley. (n.d.). November 25, 2015.
- Clark, M., Lucett, S., & Sutton, B. (Eds.). (2014). NASM Essentials of Corrective Exercise Training. Burlington, MA: Jones and Bartlett Learning.
- "The BioMechanics Method Corrective Exercise Educational Program." J. Price. 2010.
- "The Amazing Tennis Ball Back Pain Cure." J. Price. 2013.
- "Foam Rolling - Applying the Technique of Self-Myofascial Release." S. Penney. April 10, 2015.