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Self-Massage – Runner's Toolkit


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Self-Myofacial Release (SMR)

Arguably the most important aspect of any athlete’s training is recovery. It’s so important, in fact, that we’re going to discuss again and again on this site.

Too often, we see athletes over-train or ignore the “extras” such as sleep, nutrition, hydration, mindset, etc. Maybe they’re intentionally ignoring those aspects of their health and wellbeing. Maybe they genuinely don’t even realize.

Regardless, this is where self-myofascial release (SMR) can prove so useful.

SMR is a key tool for runners and athletes alike to optimize their training through intentional recovery. It’s soft-tissue therapy for releasing tension that restricts movement in the body.

To truly understand SMR, let’s first explore exactly what the facial system actually is. Facia is the continuous stream of global fibrous connective tissue that serves as an exoskeleton. This is very fluid tissue that has 10 times as many sensory nerves as muscles do, and it works very hard to send critical feedback to the central nervous system.

There are many layers of fascia in the body that surround individual muscle fibers and fiber groupings, whole muscles and much more. They link muscles with tissue to enable movement, stability, muscular efficiency and proprioceptive communication with the body.

So when an injury occurs, when we over-train or induce any level of excess physical stress, the resulting inflammatory response affects our fascia. And that, in turn, causes this fluid, elastic tissue to “dry up” and become tangled. Self-myofascial release actively works against that to rehydrate and restore the elasticity of the tissue.32

Traditionally, many people foam roll or mash their muscles to compensate for inflammation. That’s great, except that most people don’t do it correctly. As with anything else we do, there must be specific intention behind our actions in order to elicit specific changes or adaptations that help us move closer to our goals.

By randomly mashing or rolling with no purpose, we’re potentially damaging tissue. Too many people believe that applying high forces to muscles will “break up” the fascia. However, they’re not capable of applying that kind of pressure: It requires 2,000 pounds of force.

Don’t get us wrong. Facia must be presented with a stimulus in order to elicit change. It’s just that there are more specific ways to obtain the kind of change we’re looking for, such as SMR.

SMR focuses on stimulating the muscle and tissue’s sensory receptors with the intention of relaxing and lengthening them.33 Because of fascia’s numerous sensory nerves, this without a doubt creates a sensory experience, which can be positive or negative depending on how we approach it.

To keep it positive, keep it simple, keep it intentional rather than aggressive, and keep it to a reasonable minimum. Less really is more when it comes to SMR.

There are three different techniques to be utilized for this kind of self-recovery:
1. Compression/point release
2. Flushing
3. Shearing

Compression is when you use point compression on the muscle and tissue to elicit a relaxation response. Using a lacrosse ball or foam roller ideally, probe the desired area until you come across a “sticky spot,” or potentially tender, less mobile area of tissue. Then sink into that area by applying a point pressure and staying there.

This can be combined with slow oscillations of minimal movement over the spot. It should be uncomfortable, yes, but not painful.
Breathe through this spot for 10 breathing cycles (i.e., two minutes).

Flushing, meanwhile, is used primarily for repair and recovery purposes. This means it’s best implemented post-race, between sets or at night when your intention is to recuperate from training. A rolling stick is preferable in this case, though a foam roller or dense ball can work too. This is used to pump waste materials and toxins out of soft tissue.

Taking the rolling stick, apply slight pressure and roll along the offending muscle’s length in both directions. This helps the body flush out toxins that build up through daily and exercise-related stress.
You can perform this for 20 repetitions.

Finally, shearing is taking a point pressure and adding a twist to it. For this, we’re going back to that lacrosse ball. Apply pressure to one spot, then gently twist the ball while maintaining that pressure in both directions.

If you notice that one twisting one direction seems more restrictive than the other, twist in that direction while still maintaining pressure. This can help to improve elasticity in the tissue.

Shearing is a great method to use pre-activity or to supplement physical therapy treatments. Hold this
for 10 breathing cycles. Benefits of SMR:
• Stimulates the muscles to relax, which allows easier and more effective stretching
• Helps maintain postural integrity and keeps joints properly aligned to combat the stresses of gravity
• Helps detox the body by enhancing its flushing system (muscles act as pumps that move fluids and toxins, and they’re more effective in that goal when not inflamed or tight)
• Helps flush away the byproducts of exercise and toxins that cause muscle soreness
• Reduces chances of injury
• Helps keep the body loose and increase its ability to adapt to change.

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Do this twice a day, if possible

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Place a small ball (golf ball size) under six different spots on your foot and hold for at least 20 second per spot. Start with light pressure and then gently increase pressure as you get more comfortable. More is not better! Try to perform every day (morning and night).

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Prevent calf issues from wreaking havoc on your feet and ankles

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Place a tennis ball size ball underneath different areas on the calf and hold for 20-30 seconds per spot (lacrosse balls are perfect). Make sure to perform with intention as opposed to rolling aimlessly on the calf. Repeat on the other side.

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Take care of the often overused Tensor Fascia Latae

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The Tensor Fascia Latae arises from the front part of the outer lip of the pelvic bone and inserts into the IT band. The tensor fasciae latae abducts (brings the leg to the side and stabilizes the hip on one leg and it rotates the leg in).

More importantly, it tends to “overwork” in runners, contributing to IT band syndrome, poor hip stability, knee pain, back pain, among others. It also pulls the hip forward leaving the hip joint in a very poor position which over time can lead to repetitive stress injuries.

Lie on your stomach and rotate the leg inward. Place a lacrosse ball (or similar) underneath the TFL and prop yourself up to your forearms. Hold for about 10 breaths or 1-2 minutes and repeat on the other side.

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