Four Reasons You Should Get Friendly With a Foam Roller and How To Do It Part 4 (5 minute Read)

In this blog series we have been discussing the benefits of foam rolling. If you’ve missed the first three parts, click here to catch up. If you’ve already digested parts one, two and three, read on to learn about two more ways fascia benefits from foam rolling.

Self-myofascial-release organizes your fascia

Have you ever known two members of a family who are too close? Healthy bonds between family members are important and strong. Unhealthy bonds between two family members, though, can threaten the natural relative autonomy humans need and crave. If two people are “over-bonded” they are psychologically enmeshed. 

Like the individuals in tightly knit a family, collagen molecules in your fascia are bonded together. These “physiological cross-links” are part of the reason your fascia has a tensile strength (500-1000 kg/cm2) that measures higher than the tensile strength of steel! [1] These healthy biochemical intrafibrillar cross-links exist between individual collagen fibrils. Fibrils are spun together to make fibers. So here we are talking about healthy cross-links between fibrils not larger fibers. 

Larger collagen fibers (again, fibers are made from smaller fibrils spun together) are coated in and move in the aqueous ground substance we discussed previously in this blog series. They are designed to slide along one another, adapting to all the shapes you make. 

Like enmeshed individuals in unhealthy families, collagen fibers can be too bonded.SO now we are talking about unhealthy cross-links between between fibers, not smaller fibrils. In unhealthy fascia, “the collagen fibers get closer to each other and may form pathological cross-links.” [2] If we want to move freely and rid ourselves of pain we must tease these callagen fibers apart. They are held too close together by undesirable cross-links.* [3] In many cases, getting friendly with a foam roller will do the trick! More about that in a bit. In order to understand how collagen fibers appear when they are bonded in unhealthy ways, let’s talk about how healthy fascia is organized. 

structuralelements.howfasciaisorganized.jpg

The organization of collagen fibers that make up fascia matters. It matters because it determines how this biological fabric will behave. Collagen (remember collagen is the main component of connective tissue/fascia) responds to mechanical forces. It lines up in a way to support and limit those forces. Healthy fascia in your muscles (called myofascia since “myo” means muscle), sports collagen that is arranged in a double lattice pattern. For a visual, google pictures of double lattice crochet stitches. Double lattice patterns can be found in many designs. Another helpful visual used to explain the arrangement of collagen in healthy myofascia is the bag that goes around limes. 

This double lattice pattern in fascia can be seen in vivo in the beautiful videos of hand and microsurgeon Dr. Jean-Claude Guimberteau. Check one out here.  Scroll about 13 minutes in to begin seeng the double lattice arrangement of collagen.

You’ll notice that there is an open space between the “fibers” in these designs. If we imagined that we were seing collagen 2 dimensionally, as if it were a drawn diagram, we could see that the space is somewhat shaped like a diamond.

So if that's how organized fascia looks, what do the fibers in disorganized fascia look like? Rather than a nice double lattice arrangement with nice open diamond shaped spaces, collagen in unhealthy fascia resembles the fibers in felt. In other words, the fibers are stuck close together.

structuralelements.unhealthyfascia.jpg

In fascia that is pathologically short, that open diamond shaped space will look like someone sat on it - squishing it from the top to the bottom. In pathologically long fascia (think overstretched), the diamond shape will look like someone pulled the two pointed ends of the diamond away from each other, making the space longer.  In both cases, short tissue or long tissue, hydrogen bonds hold the diamond shapes in a “locked” long position or a “locked” short position. In either case, short or long, fascia will lack pliability. This is no good if you want to move well and without discomfort. As an example, think of the short uncomfortable fascia associated with plantar fasciitis. Really any time you are experiencing what has been commonly called musculoskeletal pain, you can bet there is some fascia that is stuck in an overstretched position or a shortened position. 

Now here’s the cool part: intentioned pressure can “break” some of those hydrogen bonds. Yes SMR, getting friendly with a foam roller, can create more space in fascia that is positioned long and lengthen fascia that is positioned short. When you are feeling stuck or in pain, you can do a lot to help yourself with simple SMR tools like a foam roller. 

If we want to move well, we want fascia that looks like the bag that limes come in! We don’t want fascia that looks like felt! Collagen in our muscles that is arranged in a double lattice pattern is more organized than collagen arranged like felt. If some of your fascia is more felt like, you can organize that fascia by spending just a little time with your foam roller. 

So let's review the benefits of foam rolling we've discussed in this blog:

  • SMR hydrates fascia
  • SMR wakes up your slumbering parts
  • SMR organizes your fascia  

We have one more benefit to discuss. Self-myofascial-release decreases neural drive to overactive neuro-myofascia. We will explain this benefit and talk about how to foam roll in the last two blogs in this series. 

 

*The cross links we are referring too when we describe collagen fibers (not fibrils) that are held too close together are relatively weak hydrogen bonds. [3]

[1] Van den Berg, Frans. “Extracellular Matrix.” Fascia: the Tensional Network of the Human Body: the Science and Clinical Applications in Manual and Movement Therapy, by Robert Schleip, Churchill Livingstone/Elsevier, 2013, pp. 165–168.

[2] “Connective Tissues.” Functional Atlas of the Human Fascial System, by Carla Stecco and Warren Hammer, Churchill Livingstone, 2015, pp. 1–20.

[3] Myers, Tom, and Anatomy Trains. “Anatomy Trains Blog.” Anatomy Trains, www.anatomytrains.com/blog/2014/06/25/fascial-stretch-q/.