You don’t have to look far to find self myofascial release being promoted as the new quick fix in sports training. Athletes in search of ever-greater performance are urged to ‘attack’, ‘smash’ and ‘blast’ their fascia into submission using anything from foam rollers to cricket balls to hard plastic sticks.
Apart from the risk of injury, this sort of talk is likely to discourage the majority of sensible everyday folk for whom self myofascial release promises enormous benefits in terms of fitness, flexibility, and freedom from pain.
Myofascial release for wellbeing
Fundamentally, everyone’s fascia behaves in exactly the same way, and treating it roughly then expecting it to perform is misguided. My experience as a fascia specialist, treating people with a wide range of pain conditions, has shown that a slower, gentler approach is far more effective.
As the main connective tissue in the body, fascia plays an important role in maintaining body balance and allowing freedom of movement. When fascial restrictions form, they create snags in this body-wide network. These snags change balance, restrict movement and create pressure on pain-sensitive structures.
However, as the cells in our bodies are built to replace and renew themselves, with around 6 months of regular bodywork you can change your fascia. In this time you can remove restrictions, restore flexibility and return fluidity to your tissues. Just as your body has gradually become stuck, so it can become unstuck.
I call this the ‘slow fix’. The satisfaction of myofascial self-care comes from the inevitability of the slow fix.
Top tips for self myofascial release
Here are my top tips for adopting the myofascial self-care slow fix approach:
1. ‘Lighten to untighten’
Fascia has a tensile strength of 2 tonnes per square inch (which is the equivalent of a panda sitting on you). You can’t force your fascia to release restrictions. Lighter, sustained stretches or pressure are best.
2. Be patient
When working with fascia, whether stretching or doing other body exercises, find the point at which you can just feel the start of resistance and wait there at that barrier until the fascia starts to soften, give, and release. This means holding a stretch or maintaining pressure in a ball exercise for 2 to 5 minutes. Research by Paul Standley of the University of Arizona indicates that fascia responds particularly well to 5 minutes of sustained pressure. This may be too long for many people to manage at first, so start with at least 2 minutes and build up your time.
3. Be attentive
Pay attention to how your body (and mind) are feeling as you do your exercises. You may feel pain or other sensations elsewhere in your body, which gives you an indication of where to work next. You may experience thoughts and emotions as you work – notice them and gently allow them to let go too.
4. Be gentle
Many foam rollers and other implements are too hard or dense and unyielding. It’s better to use something softer which more closely replicates the gentle pressure a therapist would use in hands-on myofascial release therapy. Inflatable balls of around 10cm in diameter are ideal as they provide the correct pressure and can be used safely even when you have pain. Smaller myofascial trigger point balls can help get into knottier areas, but these must also have a degree of give. Rubber balls are ideal – don’t be tempted by golf balls.
5. Be mindful of mind and body
In the context of myofascial self-care, being mindful means appreciating the interconnectedness of mind and body. Using relaxation downloads, meditations, and breathing exercises can help relax the mind and encourage the physical body to let go. Taking a mind and body approach to myofascial self-care maximises fascial relaxation, release, and rebalancing.
There are many different myofascial self-care exercises and stretches you can choose from. Whatever you choose, committing to just 20 minutes of daily self-care can make a big difference over time.
Try our Living Pain Free programme which is now available as a book and Kindle download. An online programme of over 40 videos demonstrating simple myofascial stretches and self-care exercises is now available on our website.