You've probably heard about active recovery and that it's something you "should" do, but maybe you don't know what it really means—or maybe you're stuck in an active recovery rut.
I define "active recovery" as workouts I typically do, but at about 40 percent of the effort and volume, or lower intensity activities that work on your weaknesses. It’s a chance to allow your body to recover at an optimal rate—you’re not placing enough stress on the body to hinder recovery, but you’re getting that blood circulating and joints moving instead of taking the day off entirely.
Active recovery is also something to focus on while trying to heal injuries, prevent injuries, and something to do when you just want a good dose of endorphins without pushing yourself too much. While I love active recovery choices like yoga, hiking, and walking, my very favorite form of active recovery as a personal trainer is self-myofascial release, or SMR, because of its immensely comprehensive benefits. The most common form of SMR is foam rolling, but it also includes massage, ART, Rolfing, and trigger-point therapy.
After my hip surgery a few years ago, SMR became my best friend and best advocate for my recovery. Surgery itself is traumatic to the body, but a major joint surgery like mine required rehabbing my hip, the muscles around it, and the way my brain controlled my body’s movements. While SMR is not an exclusive cure or rehabilitation for any one injury, it can absolutely help expedite the process.
In order to understand how you can use SMR to boost your recovery and get stronger, faster, and healthier, let's start with the facts.
What is fascia?
Fascia is the magical connective tissue in your body that gives shape to your muscles, supports your body’s structure, helps create movement in the body, and is the highway of communication from your brain to your muscles. Yes, it truly does that much! Ever wonder how your muscle knows to form a neat little six-pack or triceps definition? That’s a bundle of muscle tissue, neatly wrapped together with your body’s version of Saran Wrap aka fascia.
So what did my surgery do to my fascia? Essentially by cutting into my body, there was a major interruption to my fascia. Think of it as a sweater that got torn: You can stitch things back together, but the threads will not be as smooth and the movement of the fabric when tugged or stretched will no longer behave the same way.
What is SMR?
Basically, when we touch or affect fascia, it sends sensory input to the brain, which then tells the muscles around it how to respond. You can actually improve and manipulate the way your brain and body speak to each other using SMR!
SMR can be used for several purposes. The first is recovery, helping it decrease soreness and improve circulation and the efficiency of your body’s metabolic waste removal. It also helps regulate your nervous system in different ways, depending on the techniques used.
SMR can also be used to increase mobility and joint range of motion and tissue health, helping it reduce scar tissue and adhesions in muscle tissue.
As a trigger-point therapy certified trainer, I frequently see gym-goers use the foam roller improperly more so than nearly any other gym equipment. So be sure to keep these five rules in mind for safe and effective SMR:
1. Get hydrated.
Fascia is connective tissue that acts much like a sponge. When it’s hydrated, it is more supple and easier to manipulate, but when it is dry, it is brittle and unforgiving. Drink up before foam rolling for lessened discomfort and more effective results.
2. Breathe and relax.
It’s instinctual to cringe and hold your breath when you hit a more unpleasant area, but it is important to diaphragmatically breathe in a relaxed manner. Foam rolling while tensed up is counterproductive!
3. Don't be a masochistic hero.
It’s common for people to think they need to be a warrior on the roller, but any discomfort or light pain you feel should be at a max of 6 on a scale of 1 to 10. If you’re in more pain than that, you are likely not breathing or relaxed, which decreases effectiveness.
4. Remember that consistency always wins.
If you hope to achieve any lasting effects when it comes to mobility, tissue health, and more, your best bet is consistency. That rounded t-spine from sitting hunched over at a desk won’t be improved much if you roll only one to two times per week.
5. Always activate immediately.
The last thing you want to do is go through all that foam rolling then go sit down—it’s akin to boarding a plane but never taking flight. SMR primes your fascia, muscles, and nervous system, so don’t be a couch potato immediately afterward. Take a walk, stretch, or work out to reap the full benefits. Good luck!
Want to understand more about fascia? Here's what fascia is and why you should care about it.