You’ve seen them, the guys and gals at the gym using what looks like a big blue or gray churro. Typically they have these things under an arm or leg and are rolling around on them with a grimace on their face. They haven’t gone crazy, they’re doing something called myfascial release or, in plain english, foam rolling. And they’re doing it for a good reason, foam rolling can help you to break down the fascia that may be tightening up your muscles and causing all sorts of issues from postural problems to soreness to inflexibility. What’s fascia you ask? Well, today, let’s take a look at this practice, and in the process learn all about fascia.
No, Seriously, What’s Fascia?
Fascia is a band or sheet of connective tissue about 2mm under your skin that attaches, stabilizes, encloses and separates muscles and other internal organs. It’s basically the stuff under your skin that holds everything together and keeps things in the proper place. Fascia is made mostly of collagen, which is pretty tough stuff, but pliable at the same time. It encases each of your internal parts and allows everything to slide around inside your body along with your movements, while still holding everything in place. It’s in every part of your body (even your eyelids!) and keeps everything structured and organized.
So why haven’t you heard much about it? Well, don’t feel too bad, up until about 13 years ago, no-one paid much attention to it. It was believed to act more like packaging for your bones, muscles and organs than anything else.
All in all, fascia is pretty handy stuff, and it performs a vital role in keeping your body healthy. The problem comes in when something called an adhesion forms between the fascia and another part of your body coupled with a lack of use or lack of stretching. The muscle tightens up, and the fascia adheres to the tightened muscle (it’s just doing its job!). Added to this, stress can cause the fibers that make up your fascia to thicken in an attempt to protect your muscles, and lack of activity, or prolonged activity (such as sitting at a desk) can cause the fascia to grow into new patterns that can cause a host of problems, including reduced range of motion, tightness and soreness.
So How Does Learning About Fascia Help, And What Can I do About It?
Well, as mentioned, the problem with fascia is that because of how it does it’s job, it can reinforce your bad habits, even ones that may have developed due to injury. But the good news is, Even though it’s tough stuff, fascia is also pliable. That means you reverse any damage that may have occurred to your fascia – either through injury, under use, poor posture or adhesion related by a few simple steps, including foam rolling:
- Get Moving! First things first, get your body moving! This is the good news, the fact that you’re on this blog probably means you’re into, or looking for information on how to get into fitness. By remaining active, moving your body and stretching, you can help your fascia to prevent adhesions from forming. When you wake each day, stretch out to your full length from head to toe.
- Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate! Just like we learned in The Hydration Equation blog post, your body needs water. Your fascia is no different, it works best when it’s wet and slick, so maintaining proper hydration is equally important to your fascia too.
- Stretch That Thing! I push this in every muscle study post on this site. In addition to stretching the muscle you’ve just worked, targeted stretching of muscle groups, also helps to stretch out the encapsulating fascia. Fascia is tough stuff, and it doesn’t stretch as quickly as muscles do, so to make sure that you’re stretching the fascia as well as the muscle by holding your stretches for 3 to 5 minutes.
- Heat Therapy Helps! Remember in The Hot and Cold Therapy post we learned how heat helps muscles to relax? Well, it applies to fascia as well. If you’re wanting to maximize the results of any fascia related therapy, a 15 minute warm soak can help the fascia to loosen up.
- Foam Rolling. This is probably why we’re all here – to learn about foam rolling. The long awaited answer is foam rolling is similar to massage, but something you can do at home (or at the gym). It’s a less pleasant cousin to massage though, and can be uncomfortable, especially when you find a tight spot, but afterward, you’ll feel a lot looser and over time, it can help reduce some chronic fascia related pains.
To The Point Already, How Do I Foam Roll?
Foam rolling is self-myofascial release. Since we’ve been throwing the word fascia around like crazy today, you probably already have a good idea of what that means. You’re going to be actively targeting problem areas in your fascia to try to break down the adhesions that have likely formed over time between your fascia and the underlying muscle. The results are better blood flow to these areas, better mobility, recovery and performance. The tool you’ll be using is a foam roller.
The term “Foam Roller” is a little misleading. It’s not a soft pillowy cylinder that you’ll be using, this foam is pretty rigid stuff, and it needs to be to help you work out these adhesions. When you purchase one, look for a longer model – 36″ should do it. The longer length will make it easier to work on larger areas of your body – like your back, so it’s worth a couple of bucks to get something versatile. There are options that include molded in nubs, and vibrating motors, both of which make it easier to target fascia and work through releasing it, but for starting out, a smooth model should be fine. In fact, here’s a link to pick one up at Amazon – at the time of posting, this thing’s only around $20:
So art you ready to do this? The concept is pretty simple, place the roller under various parts of your body and let it support most of your weight. supporting yourself only as much as needed to roll the foam around under the part your focusing on. When you find an area that’s sore, linger there, and lean into it (I told you this isn’t comfortable) slowly roll the foam roller under the sensitive area for around 60 seconds, breathing and relaxing into the roller until the soreness fades. That’s the basics of foam rolling, but I won’t leave you hanging.
I found a pretty comprehensive video on YouTube courtesy of Ashley Borden and Livestrong that you can learn and/or follow along with here:
While foam rolling may not be as beneficial as going to a certified massage therapist, it’s a great option between visits to help keep your body working with minimal fascia issues.
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