Kyle Levers, M.S., CSCS
The repetitive and high performance demands surrounding athletes of all levels forces many to find the most effective, yet practical recovery methods. Various types of massage therapies have been investigated and employed by many athletes due to the historical background in rehabilitation and relaxation.
A specialized type of massage used during post-exercise recovery is myofascial release. Anatomically, fascia within the human body is a strong connective tissue network of tightly-packed collagen fibers that spread three-dimensionally and uninterrupted over the entire body structure. The network has three layers: superficial, deep, and visceral; the deep fascia layer spreads into and directly surrounds muscular and bone structures.
Fascia maintains structural integrity and resists both internal and external forces. For sound and efficient movement, the fascia surrounding the functioning areas must be intact, properly distributed, and free of constraint. The fascia system may break down or become restricted due to trauma, poor posture, or inflammation. This creates anatomical and biomechanical imbalances that can limit freedom of structural movement, impair posture, and even cause pain. Good movement and posture allow for proper flow in blood and lymphatic vessels, which in turn may contribute to increased metabolite circulation and metabolism in other oxidative tissues, thus potentially increasing duration and quality of subsequent performance.
Myofascial release is a specific soft tissue therapy used to help stretch the fascia while reestablishing proper muscular alignment and range of motion. Both direct and indirect myofascial techniques may be used by a practitioner, as stretching intensity is guided exclusively by palpation. Direct techniques involve deep tissue work in which the targeted tissue is applied with a constant force until tension release occurs. Practitioners may apply large amounts of concentrated pressure with fingers, knuckles, or elbows to help slowly stretch the layers of restricted fascia until deep tissues are reached. Indirect techniques involve a more gentle stretch with significantly less pressure as subtle movement helps guide restricted fascia toward proper alignment. The treated musculature and type of myofascial release employed is determined by the response of the tissue and patient feedback. The practitioner may also use specific myofascial trigger points to determine additional areas of restriction.
Most athletes at the high school, collegiate, and professional levels have limited access to a licensed practitioner of myofascial release techniques due to convenience and cost of such services. Thus, the introduction of the self-myofascial release technique of foam rolling, has provided portability, low cost, and convenience. Foam rollers are sold in a variety of materials ranging from softer foam to hard plastic depending on the desired level of muscular pressure. Foam rolling allows an athlete to achieve the benefits of indirect myofascial release using his or her own body weight as pressure, by slowly rolling out any muscle group or area of tightness over the roller at a constant cadence for intervals of approximately 30 seconds. Direct myofascial release techniques can also be employed by rolling over a tennis ball or lacrosse ball in a very small area until the fascia begins to relax.
Current research concludes that bouts of post-exercise foam rolling may help to increase joint mobility and range of motion. However, research on foam rolling as an effective recovery and restorative technique is extremely limited. The technique requires further investigation, despite its rapid growth in popularity among athletes and athletic specialists.
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