Jan 29, 2015
Digging Deeper

By Nicole Nelson, MS, LMT

Performing self myofascial release (SMR) with foam rollers and tennis balls is a convenient and inexpensive way to manage your athletes’ overly-toned muscle and sticky fascia. Here are five tips to optimize their time on the roller.

Tip #1: SMR takes time, pick one or two areas per workout.

Most myofascial therapists will tell you that it can take several minutes of attention to a specific area to create the sought after “melt” of fascial layers. The same holds true with SMR. Let’s say you devote 10 minutes of session time to foam rolling. Your athletes will get much better results if they don’t try to cover the entire body, rather have them pick two areas and work them thoroughly.

When selecting which areas to work for the day, you may want to consider two things: what the movement demands of the workout will be, and where their body needs some freeing up. For example, if I know my clients are going to be doing a lot of upper body pulling, and they have been sitting at their desk all day, I would have them spend 10 minutes mobilizing their T-spine and performing SMR on their pecs.

Tip #2: Fascia exists in a series of layers; separate them like a peanut butter sandwich.

Fascia exists in layers throughout the body, and for one reason or another, binding may occur between its layers that should otherwise be able to glide along each other. Although you will get some benefit from sustained perpendicular compression on a fascial sticky spot, it is generally more effective to create “shear” or lateral movement between the interconnected layers of fascia.

I liken this to separating a peanut butter sandwich, you must slide and twist the bread slowly to separate it. If you can manage to trap the adhered tissue and drag it an inch or two, you can un-glue the structures that need to glide along each other.

I find this to be a very successful approach when working with the IT band. The reality is that the IT band could probably pull the load equivalent of a large truck, so it is unlikely we are affecting this strong sheath of fascia by pressing straight down on it (in some areas, collagen can withstand 2,000 lbs of pressure/sq. in.). Your athletes will be far more effective if their focus is on un-gluing the IT band from the underlying lateral quadricep and hamstring muscles.

To finish up IT band work, have your athletes shift their attention to applying perpendicular compression onto the gluteus maximus and tensor fascia lata. Have them take their time and slowly sink into the foam roller or tennis ball.

Tip #3: Work with the tissue, not on the tissue.

When I first became a massage therapist, this point took me a long time to fully appreciate. I would sadistically impose my will on my athlete’s tissue, trying to force things to happen. This approach did nothing other than leave my clients bruised and feeling beaten up.

Effective soft tissue release must stay under the body’s protective guarding threshold. In other words, if your clients are wincing and holding their breath during their SMR work, they are not accomplishing very much–and they are probably cursing you for making them do it. Now don’t get me wrong, SMR may be uncomfortable, but it should never painful.

Allow me to take a few steps back and explain one of the theories behind SMR. Pressure to both muscle and fascial tissue excites sensory receptors which are known to illicit a relaxation. There is a point, however, where too much pressure that is applied too quickly will illicit a guarding, self protecting response. This effect is quite similar to stretching: if the client’s nervous system senses a threat, their body will not be very receptive to any type of release. The sensory system plays a large roll in the success of SMR, so have your athletes be patient and work with their tissue, superficial to deep.

Tip #4: Make sure your athletes are well hydrated.

Fascia is primarily comprised of collagen, elastin, colloidal gels and water within what has been labeled the Extracellular Matrix (ECM). Dependant on the quantities of these components within the ECM, fascia can assume varying viscosity, from thick and sticky (gel like state) to fluid and slippery (sol like state) (Myers, 2011). The gel state has a lower hydration level in which the fascia often becomes adhered to surrounding layers of tissue.

It is important to note that when we move or stretch, collagen fibers don’t really lengthen. Rather, the consistency of the ECM will permit gliding of fibers along other structures (Sbriccoli et al., 2005). In other words, the amount of water within the ECM helps dictate the elasticity of the fascia. It is this elastic quality that allows us to land a little softer, and gets us a good return on stored energy in our more explosive movements such as a kettlebell snatch.

I always assume that after someone sits at a desk, or in classes, for 8-10 hours, their fascia resembles hard, crusted molasses. If they haven’t adequately hydrated throughout the day, it will be worse. Research by Schleip suggests the stretch of myofascial therapy induces a temporary decrease in tissue water content, which, after a brief recovery, is followed up by a super-compensation of matrix hydration of the tissue (Shleip R, et. al., 2012). Simply stated, manipulating fascia (i.e., SMR) creates a sponge-like wringing out of water, which is followed by a refilling in the ECM.

Tip #5: Fascia is continuous; restriction can have far-reaching effects.

Many of us have been trained to view the body within a muscular context, meaning forces are only transmitted from distal insertion to proximal insertion. This is not entirely wrong, but it certainly leaves you with an incomplete impression as to how movement takes place and how fascia unites seemingly distant areas of the body.

Fascia blends with, and is anatomically continuous with, adjacent fascia (Juhan, 1987). Fascia surrounds muscles, bones, organs and joints with no interruption. The functional significance of this must be studied further, but it seems that mechanical tensions do extend through fascial connections.

Research by Vleeming demonstrated that traction to the gluteus maximus muscle transferred across the thoracoloumbar fascia and the contralateral latissimus dorsi muscle (Vleeming et al., 1995). Vleeming also discovered the strain transmission during a straight leg raise was much greater on the IT band and lumbar fascia vs. the hamstring.

The lateral force transmissions seen in Vleeming’s research demonstrates the multi-directional nature of fascia, and illustrates that our mobility and SMR work must consider more than just linear muscular attachments. For example, let’s say you have an athlete who, despite constantly rolling her hamstring, still feels extremely tight. “Tight hamstrings” could be an expression of many things, but within the context of fascial continuity, you might consider the tugging and strain patterns distant from the hamstring, and have her explore the calf or plantar fascia for possible restriction.

If you decide to take anything away from this article, read Thomas Myers insightful book, Anatomy Trains. It will change the way you assess movement and will quite likely change the way you train your athletes.

To sum up, SMR is a fantastic method our athletes can use to maintain their soft tissue quality. If we can teach them to be more effective with their soft tissue work, we can maximize their training potential and limit the number of aches and pains they experience along the way.

Nicole Nelson, MS, LMT, is a massage therapist and personal trainer based in Jacksonville, Fla.


Ingber, D., 1998. “The Architecture of Life.” Scientific American, 278, 48-57.

Juhan, D., 1987. “Job’s Body.” A handbook for bodywork. New York: Station Hill Press.

Myers T., 2011. Fascial Fitness: Training in the Neuromyofascial Web. Idea Fitness Journal Vol. 8 (4) 36-42.

Schleip R., Duerselen, L., Vleeming A., Naylor I., Lehmann-Horn F., Zorn A., Jaeger H., Klinger W., 2012. Strain hardening of fascia: Static stretching of dense fibrous connective tissues can induce a temporary stiffness increase accompanied by enhanced matrix hydration. Journal of Bodywork & Movement Therapies, 19, 94-100.

Sbriccoli, P., Solomonow M., Zhou B., Lu Y., Stellards R., 2005. Neuromuscular response to cyclic loading of the anterior cruciate ligament. The American Journal of Sports Medicine, 33(4), 543-51.

Vleeming, A., Pool-Goudzwaard, A. L., Stoeckart, R., van Wingerden, J.P., Snijders, C. J., 1995. The posterior layer of the thoracolumbar fascia. Its function in load transfer from spine to legs. Spine, 20(7), 753-758.

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