What is Self-Myofascial Release?
In simple terms, self-myofascial release is self-massage, often done using aides like foam rollers and tennis balls. Myo- refers to muscles, and fascia is a layer of connective tissue that connects your skin to your muscles. We can hold a lot of tension in these tissues, so by rolling them out and self-massaging you can “release” and relax them.
What Does Self-Myofascial Release Do?
The commonly held belief is that foam rolling and other types of self-massage break up micro-adhesions (tiny scars) in muscles and connective tissue, but the science has yet to find good evidence of this really happening--muscles and connective tissue are very tough stuff!
An explanation with better scientific support is that self-massage stimulates the many touch, pressure, and stretch receptors in your skin and muscles, and these nerve signals can inhibit pain and tell the brain to relax its “guarding” mechanisms like muscle tension and hypersensitivity.
This helps explain why we can feel such immediate relief when the right spot is massaged. Long-term changes to muscles and fascia take longer than a few seconds or minutes, but the nervous system can alter itself (and its effects on your muscles) almost instantaneously.
Whatever the underlying reason, many people find that foam rolling and self-massage relieves pain and soothes soreness, which makes it an easy, affordable, and accessible self-care practice. Here’s how you can get started with it.
Putting Together A Self-Myofascial Starter Kit
Foam rollers are now commonplace in any store that carries fitness supplies. You will likely also find mobility tools like massage sticks, massage balls, and stretching aids like “wheels” and yoga blocks.
A good starter kit would be a foam roller, a tennis or lacrosse ball, a pair of yoga blocks, and a pillow or two. If you find you really enjoy this practice, you can buy the specialty mobility and self-massage gadgets later.
Getting Started with Foam Rolling
The easiest way to learn how to do self-myofascial release is by seeing someone else do it, which is why I’ve selected some of my favorite tutorial videos to share.
Watch this video for a short introduction to foam rolling:
For a 15-minute follow-along foam rolling routine, I recommend trying this:
You can target smaller spots using a tennis ball:
Self-Myofascial Release and Self-Massage Tips
Start light. Your body needs some time to warm up and get ready for deeper pressure. To prepare for firmer pressure, you can start with light contact like rubbing your skin with your hands, stretching your skin in different directions and holding the stretch for a few moments, and gently squeezing and massaging your muscles with your hands.
Start broad. To help your body warm up to the experience, do self-message or foam rolling on broader areas and thicker muscles like your upper back, thighs, and glutes. Avoid bony spots or places where the skin is close to the bone, like your shins and directly on your spine. Begin with a tool with a broader surface area, like a large foam roller. Once you get a feel for how your body is doing and find any sore spots, you can switch to smaller tools like tennis balls to target specific spots.
Don’t overdo it. Some people love to really smash their muscle knots, but be careful to not go so hard you bruise yourself or make yourself even more sore later. While deep pressure can feel good, often what the nervous system really needs are gentle, slow sensations that show that it’s OK to stop sending the “warning signs” that we feel as pain and tightness. Crushing a nerve may cause it to become crankier later. When you find a tender spot, sink into that tissue with slow, gentle pressure, and do not force yourself to push through pain.
Simple self-care practices like self-myofascial release and self-massage can go a long way to keeping you tuned up and feeling good. If you have any questions or need help with a particular trouble spot, I’m always here for you -- just get in touch!