Myofascial Release (MR): Massage and Foam Rolling

by NSCA's Essentials of Tactical Strength and Conditioning
Kinetic Select February 2020


This excerpt briefly explains myofascial release, self-myofascial release strategies, and benefits of these techniques.

The following is an exclusive excerpt from the book NSCA's Essentials of Tactical Strength and Conditioning, published by Human Kinetics. All text and images provided by Human Kinetics.

Myofascia or fascia is the connective tissue that covers the muscles. It can be restricted by injury, disease, inactivity, or inflammation, and as a result it loses elasticity and begins to bind together, causing fibrous adhesions (36). These adhesions may not only become painful but also decrease ROM, muscle length, strength, endurance, motor coordination, and soft tissue extensibility (6, 13, 56). Fascia has an important link to mobility and flexibility due to its elastic qualities, providing the greatest potential for stretch (15).

Myofascial release (MR) is a manual therapy developed by Barnes (6) to help relieve and reduce adhesions within the fascia. It involves massage or trigger-point therapy in which a health care provider, such as an athletic trainer, physical therapist, or a licensed massage therapist, provides manual pressure to the affected area (22). Physiotherapists spend approximately 45% of their time providing massage therapy to aid recovery and improve sport performance (22). Massage therapy is often an underrated and underutilized therapeutic procedure that improves circulation, promotes muscle relaxation, loosens scar tissue, stretches tight muscles and fascia, and relieves muscle spasms (35). It has also been shown to help HR and DBP recover to preexercise levels after high-intensity exercise (4) and to reduce exercise-induced fatigue (42, 44). This is particularly important for tactical athletes who experience episodes of high cardiovascular demand, such as firefighters, where the risk of a cardiac event is significant. Massage therapy may not always be practical because it requires a third-party therapist. However, self-myofascial release (SMR), which uses foam rollers or dense implements such as baseballs or golf balls, can be performed by an individual without the assistance of others. It is becoming a more common practice and may provide a suitable alternative to massage therapy.

Implements such as foam rollers allow the user to manipulate the soft tissue by applying the sustained pressure needed to help release fascial adhesions. Individuals are able to use their own body weight in varying positions to isolate soft tissue areas and apply pressure to those areas in a manner similar to massage therapy (27). This pressure helps soften and lengthen the fascia. The generation of friction between the fascia and the implement (foam roller) warms the fascia, helping it take on a fluid form (known as the thixotropic property of fascia); breaks down scar tissue and adhesions between the skin, muscle, and bone; and restores soft tissue extensibility (52). There is limited peer-reviewed research on SMR for improving mobility and flexibility; however, MacDonald et al. (36) showed that as little as 2 minutes of slow, undulating rolling on a high-pressure foam roller enhanced quadriceps ROM to levels similar to those resulting from static stretching. The foam rolling had no effect on force output, an argument commonly used against static stretching (36). The research on SMR and performance enhancement is also minimal (23, 65), but there have been studies supporting the use of SMR to enhance mood and reduce exercise-induced fatigue (27, 39, 63, 64). Healey et al. (27) showed postexercise fatigue to be significantly less after foam rolling and suggested that the reduced fatigue might allow participants to extend their acute workout time and volume and possibly enhance long-term performance.

NSCA's Essentials of Tactical Strength and Conditioning is the ideal preparatory guide for those seeking Tactical Strength and Conditioning Facilitator® TSAC-F® certification, and a reference for strength and conditioning professionals who work with tactical populations such as military, law enforcement, and fire and rescue personnel. The book is available in bookstores everywhere, as well as online at the NSCA Store.

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