By Personal Trainer & Health Consultant |
To understand the benefits of foam rolling, it is first important to understand some of the structures inside your body which are involved.
Many of the structures in your body are covered by facia, including blood vessels, organs, nerves and also muscles, which are covered in ‘myofascia’. These myofascia are flexible and are able to move freely to accommodate your body moving, however if they get damaged, which can be caused by excessive exercise or new movements, the myofascia can tear and adhere together, forming what are known as ‘trigger points’. These trigger points can cause pain, reduce force production, and also reduce range of movement.
Often the blood flow to these damaged myofascial is poor, and so the healing process can be long, however there are ways to promote blood flow to these areas to help speed up the healing.
Myofascial release involves applying pressure to these trigger points, and it is believed that the direct pressure to these trigger points can help promote blood flow to the area. If you go for a sports massage, this technique is commonly practiced, however for some people, it may be easier to practicing this technique by themselves, known as ‘self-myofascial release’. Foam rolling is a type of self-myofascial release!
How to Foam Roll
First of all, don’t foam roll over joints such as your knee or elbow – myofascial release helps with muscles so not only will rolling over joints be painful, but also pretty useless when it comes to myofascial release. And also while foam rolling is great for myofascial release, if you have recently injured a body part and there is currently bruising, then foam rolling may not be the best thing to be doing on that area.
Foam rolling is expected to cause discomfort, but if it starts to cause pain, then you’re putting too much pressure down on that area.
Foam rollers are easy to find online, and are usually a hard foam-textured round tube which is more comfortable than using something completely rigid.
Alternatives are hockey or lacrosse balls which are much smaller than a foam roller, and may be useful for targeting specific areas that a foam roller isn’t able to pinpoint. The principles behind both sets of kit is largely the same though.
The nice thing about foam rolling is that you have complete control over how much pressure is applied. If a movement starts to cause pain, then you can easily reduce the pressure by putting more weight through your hands, and likewise, if there is not enough pressure being applied, then you can easily put more weight over the foam roller and less through whatever limb is touching the floor.
You’ll recognise hitting a ‘trigger point’ because it’ll be a particularly sensitive part of the muscle. Rather than quickly rolling over this, keep the pressure directly on it for about 30 seconds, and you’ll start to feel the pain subsiding, then continue to roll the length of the muscle. As you roll back the other way and reach the trigger point again, hopefully it’ll be slightly less sensitive this time round, but keep the pressure on it for about 30 seconds and then release.
You should roll in the same direction as the muscle fibres, rather than rolling across them, and rather than just rolling up and down the same part of the muscle over and over again, move your body to hit the muscles from different angles.
Take your quads for example, rather than always rolling up the middle of your quads (rectus femoris), tilt your body so you’re rolling up the inner muscles (vastus medialis) and outer (vastus lateralis) too.
While rolling over a muscle such as the calf, rather than just keeping your ankle joint still, it is a good idea to mix it up a little bit and to pull your toes up towards you as you roll.
This will increase the stretch through the muscle and may help improve range of motion (ROM) of the ankle joint.
Benefits of Foam Rolling | The Research
✓ Short-term flexibility increases
A 2015 review (1) has found that in the majority of studies, SMFR does lead to an increase ROM in joints. Research (2) has measured knee extensor force and ROM before and after foam rolling. The rolling consisted of 2 bouts of 60 seconds of foam rolling on their quads, The group who used the foam roller were able to increase their ROM in their knee joint by an average of 10 degrees when measured 2 minutes after foam rolling, and even 10 minutes after foam rolling, the average ROM was still 8 degrees greater than it was at the start. They found that there was no change in force production.
Similar results were seen in another study looking at the calf muscle (3), where one group used a foam roller for 3 bouts of 30 seconds on their calves, and another group used static calf stretching. Both groups improved their ROM, however the foam roller group increased calf strength, whereas the static stretching group actually decreased their force output. Static stretching can result in reduced performance, particularly if stretches are held for over 60 seconds (4).
✓ Long-term flexibility increases
The research looking at long-term ROM improvements are less convincing. Studies have got participants to use a foam roller 3 times a week on their hamstrings for 8 weeks, and there were no significant changes in hamstring ROM at the end of the study, however these participants all had ‘tight hamstrings’ at the start of the study (5). Another bit of evidence on the hamstrings however shows that foam rollers did help to improve ROM in the hamstrings, however these participants were also supplementing with Omega 3-6-9 Vitamin E (6). More research on the long-term range of movement is needed.
✓ Reduction of DOMS
The majority of studies in a 2015 review have shown that SMFR can reduce DOMS post-exercise, although again the mechanisms to explain this phenomenon are not clear. Participants in one study (7) completed 10 sets of 10 reps of back squats at 60% of their 1RM, with one group following this with 20 mins of foam rolling, and another group did nothing after the squats. The group that used a foam roller reported less muscle tenderness in the days following, and also performed better in measures including sprints, power and dynamic strength endurance than the group who didn’t use a foam roller. A similar study (8) used 10×10 stiff-legged deadlifts, and then 48 hours later had participants only use a foam roller on one of their hamstrings. The leg which received foam roller had less muscle soreness, and also reduced pain when pressure was applied to the muscle afterwards.
✓ Affect arterial function and vascular endothelial function
There is also some evidence to suggest that foam rolling can help reduce arterial stiffness and also improve vascular endothelial function (9). The pressure of the foam roller may help reduce muscular tension, and the arteries within the muscle consequently reduce their stiffness. Simultaneously, the pressure may produce nitric oxide, which is a vasodilator which again will help increase blood flow.
Massage therapy has been proved elsewhere to help improve blood pressure in both healthy individuals and individuals with high blood pressure, and it is believed to be due to the nitric oxide being released (10)
How Does Foam Rolling Work?
There is no general consensus for how SMFR causes these adaptations, however there are several different theories that have been investigated:
Fascial Adhesions Model
If different fascial layers are stuck together, they can be released by moving the muscle through its full ROM under traction (HedleyG 2010).
Fluid Flow Model
Applying pressure to fascia can cause it to temporarily lose water, and therefore this makes it more pliable until it rehydrates (Chaitow, 2009).
Fascial Inflammation Model
Inflammation may cause muscle fascia to tighten, and this can be reduced by increasing blood flow to the area (Findley et al 2012).
Cellular Responses Model – applying pressure to fascia will cause biochemical changes in cells, resulting in fascial adaptations (TozziP, 2012)
Best Time To Foam Roll?
So there is evidence to suggest that foam rolling can help improve range of movement, and for this reason it may be a good idea to include it as part of your warm up before exercise.
However, there is also evidence to say that if carried out after exercise, it can help reduce DOMS, so for this reason it may be best to carry it out after exercise too.
✓ If you don’t have time to do it before and after exercise, I’d suggest just incorporating it into your warm up, and even when foam rolling is done 48 hours after exercise, it can still help reduce DOMS, and if it’s done in the warm up, you’ll get the immediate benefit of better ROM during your session too.
Take Home Messages
✓ Foam rolling is a form of self-myofascial release, and can be integrated into warm ups and cool downs to help optimise muscle performance and repair.
✓ Just 1-2 minutes of foam rolling on a muscle group is enough to help improve range of motion.
✓ There is strong evidence to show that it can help improve your range of movement in the short-term, as well as reduce DOMS following exercise.
✓ There is some mixed evidence to show it may help improve range of movement in the long-run and improve blood flow to muscles.