Hey Readers! I am so glad you are here! In today's blog post, I will go over my personal history and "tricks of the trade" as it relates to my self-myofascial rolling (SMR) practice. If you did not read my post last week all about SMR, I highly recommend that you go back and read that information first (click here).
If you are new to the practice of SMR, I strongly encourage you to seek the advice and instruction of a trained provider. This can often include certified personal trainers (CPTs), licensed massage therapists (LMTs), corrective exercise specialists (CES), physical therapists, and yoga teachers trained in an SMR technique, such as the Roll Model Method. I myself am a CPT, yoga teacher, and a certified Roll Model Method (RMM) provider.
If you are interested in learning how to use the RMM therapy balls, you can take an in-person or livestream class at Breathe Yoga Atlanta with the amazing Lauren Reese, M.S., E-RYT. In addition to owning a yoga studio and teaching yoga to athletes and yogis, Lauren is also a certified RMM practitioner and a Yoga Tune Up teacher. Breathe Yoga Atlanta (BYA) offers an evening rolling classes on Tuesdays/Thursdays at 6:30pm and a morning rolling class on Fridays at 8:00am, all EST. I highly, highly recommend these classes, so you can get direct instruction on how to implement this self-care routine for your tissues at home. SMR can improve your performance in exercise and daily living tasks, AND it can speed up recovery after strenuous workouts.
My Journey with SMR
I began my personal SMR practice in 2019 when I was doing my yoga teacher training (YTT). In my YTT program, through BYA, we were required to attend SMR classes monthly in order to help us embody all the anatomy we were learning. In our SMR class (called "Fascia Friday" at Breathe Yoga Atlanta), we used the Roll Model Method therapy balls to complete our SMR practice.
About a year prior to beginning my YTT, I injured my right knee by tearing my ACL during a kettlebell workout. It was awful! I could not do any type of exercise for several months, which was really quite difficult for me since exercise is very calming to my overactive brain. I had to let my knee heal naturally due to the insanely high cost of medical treatment. But even when my knee started to heal and repair itself, I still experienced significant knee pain during running, yoga, and my other workouts. I also developed a good amount of anxiety re: the possibility of pain that made it challenging to properly execute lower body movements in my workouts. During one of the first fascia classes I attended at BYA, our mentor, Lauren Reese (mentioned above in the introduction), had us roll our shin and quadricep muscles. I was terrified that my knee was going to hurt, so much so that Lauren actually had to come and sit next to me, reminding me I was safe, while I did SMR on my leg muscles. And wouldn't you know it, it did not hurt my knee at all. In fact, quite the opposite happened. I didn't have any knee pain later that day when practicing yoga with my YTT group.
I was so amazed by the results of just one single SMR practice. Throughout the rest of my YTT, we continued to attend monthly SMR classes with Lauren, embodying our anatomy while we learned how to roll all the muscles in our body. And slowly, over time, my knee pain continued to dwindle away. I also got stronger when executing lower body movements, such as lunges and squats. I finished my YTT in March 2020, literally just before the COVID-19 craziness began. At that time, I didn't own any Roll Model Method therapy balls personally because I had been taking regular SMR classes at BYA, and I just used the therapy balls at the studio. But, when COVID-19 started to become a bigger issue, yoga studios stopped sharing props and eventually all studios shut down for in-person classes for a period of time. Thus, I bought a couple sets of Roll Model Method therapy balls from BYA, so I could continue my SMR practice at home. I started to roll my shins, calves, quads, and glutes several times during the week. And eventually, my knee pain completely disappeared. I was able to run long distances again, participate in Pure Barre classes without pain or worry, and engage in a variety of lower body workouts that had once seemed impossible.
Now, I have a regular SMR practice both at home and at BYA. Through SMR, I have learned to truly listen to the messages my physical body is sending to my brain. My internal sense of which body parts need recovery and self-care has grown tremendously. The signals coming from my myofascia are heard loud and clear by my brain, and I do SMR on the appropriate body part. For instance, if I have been sitting at my computer a lot during the workday, I might sense that my chest, shoulders, and back need a little extra TLC via my SMR practice. Or, if I completed a super long hike, my feet might be begging to be rolled.
I am a staunch believer in science and the scientific process. In both my biology Master's AND speech therapy Master's programs, I was trained to think critically and objectively analyze data. I am a big believer in seeing the data for myself, rather than relying on someone's interpretation of the data. There is good, solid evidence to support the benefits of SMR. So, while I am merely presenting anecdotal evidence to you in this blog post, please know that if you go to peer-reviewed databases, such as PubMed, you should find a good amount of evidence for SMR.
My SMR Practice - My Tricks and Hacks
Just like my yoga practice or other workouts (e.g. running, hiking, SUP, Barre), my rolling practices varies day-to-day, based on what my body and mind need. I typically try to practice SMR 3 - 5 times per week, but of course, there are weeks where I practice it more, or less, depending on the factors of life. Below I have listed some tidbits of wisdom that I have gleaned over the years from my personal SMR practice.
Wear my glasses. If I am doing my SMR practice in the evenings, I almost always wear my glasses. This is because my contacts get a little dry from having my eyes closed for so long (I often close my eyes during my SMR practice to really help me experience the internal sensations from my body).
Listen to relaxing music. Since I use my SMR practice to down-regulate my nervous system and/or to help my myofascia recover faster after tough workouts, I typically use very relaxing, massage-type music while I am rolling. Occasionally, I do not use music at all, but I have found that a very gentle sound in the background helps me to release tension a little bit easier.
Vary the body-parts rolled. Some days I just roll one body part based on my workouts that week or if I have any discomfort or pain anywhere. For example, if I have logged a lot of miles running or hiking, I will focus on rolling my quadriceps, knees, and shins in order to help these area recover faster. This is especially important for me because of my old knee injury. Similarly, if I have done a lot of balance work in my yoga practice or otherwise (e.g. Barre, SUP), I might choose to simply roll the myofascia of my lower back to release any tension there.
Vary the roller object used. Sometimes in my SMR practice, my myofascia is begging for some deep tissue work. For example, if I completed a super long hike, I might use my RMM original therapy balls to roll the myofascia of my feet. Conversely, sometimes my myofascia needs a very gentle touch in order to release excess tone. In those instances, I might only use the RMM Coregeous ball. I might even use my foam roller if I needed to do SMR on my calves or hamstrings (I actually prefer the foam roller for these body parts, but that is just personal opinion).
Vary the pressure. I have found that I vary the pressure from the roller object quite often in my SMR practice, and this actually varies moment-by-moment. The pressure might be more or less on a given body area depending on what I need in that moment. Sometimes, as I start to find trigger points in my myofascia, the sensation increases quite a lot, and I might need to back off the pressure for a few breaths. Conversely, sometimes, I find one of those "hurts-so-good" spots, where deeper pressure feels perfect to my tissues. Part of having an SMR practice is truly learning to listen to the signals your physical body is sending you, and then adjusting your rolling method based on those signals.
Vary the speed. I typically do my SMR with a very slow speed, as I am almost always using my SMR practice to help me calm my nervous system, while also repairing my tissues. Thus, a slower tempo is usually better for achieving those results. Generally speaking, a faster speed during SMR is more alerting to the nervous system, so this might be a great option if you wanted to increase proprioception before an athletic event (e.g. a long run). But to be honest, I rarely do my SMR before a workout; rather, I do my SMR practice after a workout almost 100% of the time. But again, that is just my personal preference.
Have ALL the props. There are certain props that are required for an SMR practice. First, you need to have an external object that is specifically designed for SMR. Using sports balls, such as a baseball or tennis ball, isn't really that great for your delicate myofascia. Thus, I do NOT recommend that you use a sports ball. What I do recommend, and highly so, are the RMM therapy balls. They come in four sizes that are designed to mimic the pressure from a massage therapist's hand, with the smaller therapy balls generally delivering more pressure than the larger therapy balls. I also recommend that you invest in a foam roller as well. In addition to having the appropriate therapy balls, I recommend that you have a blanket (or towel) and yoga blocks on hand for your rolling practice (click here to read more about yoga props).
Actively stay connected to my internal sensations. The best results from SMR come when your attention stays focused on the physical and emotional sensations in your body. Your rolling practice is NOT the time to think about other things, such as the workday that just finished. Focus on the sensations in your body, so you can learn about, and communicate with, your body. The therapy balls are meant to "talk to" your nervous system. And, your myofascia will talk back at you, either by communicating a sense of release or a sense of tightness or bracing. Your job as the SMR practitioner is to listen AND honor those messages by adjusting your rolling practice as needed.
Remember to breathe. Breathing during SMR is of utmost importance. Do not hold your breath while doing SMR because it negates all the benefits of it. If you notice that you are holding your breath, it might be a sign that you need to move the roller object a little north, south, east, or west. Or, it might be a sign that you need a little more, or less, pressure. Your breath is truly your signal for how your nervous system is responding to the SMR practice. If your breath is not flowing easily and fluidly, you might need to back off, or add more, intensity.
Use it as an opportunity to learn about myself. I use my SMR practice to learn about my body - where I have too much tension, pain, relief, or openness. Just like yoga, SMR is a nonjudgmental practice. You do not label the sensations that arise during SMR as right or wrong. Rather, you use those sensations to your advantage to learn more about the body parts that might need more, or less, attention. My SMR practice also helps me to learn about my own anatomy, including where things are and the borders between various parts. I also use my SMR practice to learn about where my mind goes when I do encounter a sensational trigger point - do I get anxious and worried, or do I approach that sensation with curiosity and wonder?
SMR is an evidence-based, self-care routine that uses some type of external object to release tension from muscles and the surrounding tissue. I began my SMR journey a few years ago when I began my yoga teacher training. Through the years, my SMR practice has helped me to rehabilitate an ACL tear, without any expensive surgeries or treatment. My SMR practice varies day-to-day, based on what my body needs. I might vary the pressure, roller object used, or the body part rolled. I typically use my SMR practice to unwind, destress, and recover, so I typically use relaxing music and wear my glasses while rolling. The most important things about an SMR practice are: listen to your body; remember to breathe; and use it as an opportunity to learn about YOU. Thanks for reading this post!
As always, the information presented in this blog post is derived from my own study of neuroscience, human movement, anatomy, and yoga. If you have specific questions about SMR for your body, please consult with your physician, physical therapist, personal trainer, or private yoga teacher. If you are interested in private yoga sessions with me, Jackie, you can book services on my website ("Book Online" from the menu at the top of the page), or you can email me at email@example.com for more information about my services. Also, please subscribe to my website so you can receive my weekly newsletters (scroll to the bottom of the page where you can submit your email address). This will help keep you "in-the-know" about my latest blog releases and other helpful yoga and wellness information. Thanks for reading!
~Namaste, Jackie Allen, M.S., M.Ed., CCC-SLP, RYT-200, RCYT, NASM-CPT
Brookbush, B. (2019). Muscle Fiber Dysfunction and Trigger Points. Brookbush Institute of Human Movement Science. Article link here.
Miller, J. (2014). The Roll Model: A Step-by-step Guide to Erase Pain, Improve Mobility, and Live Better in Your Body. Victory Belt Publishing, Inc.
Clark, M.A. et al. (2018). NASM Essentials of Personal Fitness Training. 6th Edition. Jones & Bartlett Learning. Burlington, MA.