Foam rolling has become more popular and mainstream in athletics and forms of corrective exercise over the past couple decades. A lot of people enjoy it because it makes them feel better and can even feel like you’re receiving a deep tissue massage. This technique is an important component for any individual looking to relief pain, enhance athletic performance and increased mobility. In recent years foam rolling has been referred to as Self-Myofascial Release. This fits into any warm up, during the workout, or post workout routine.
Why foam rolling works
There have been many studies regarding foam rolling and how it affects the body. Theories range from releasing the fascia, releasing knots and adhesions, relaxing the nervous system, increasing blood flow to the tissue, and more.
Nervous System and the Receptors in the Body.
While studies are ongoing with foam rolling we can use prior results and our knowledge to theorize how this affects such an important system.
Previous studies show that foam rolling a muscle on one side of the body can have beneficial effects on the contralateral (opposite) side on the same limb. This would require neural benefits in order to get such results. P-DTR and NKT are 2 neurological techniques that have shown that a variety of receptors exist in the issue that can become dysfunctional. These receptors can often create dysfunctions on the GAIT antagonist. This would be like if you had pain in your right calf it could be a compensation for a dysfunction in the left calf. Releasing the left calf would then lower the dysfunctional level in the contralateral one allowing the tissue to feel better bilaterally. If we follow P-DTR theory, while this will not solve a receptor issue it can turn it down for a limited time which may be enough to relieve pain and improve your athletic performance.
Release Muscle tissue, adhesions, and fascia
While none of this can be proven we do have theories, as well as anecdotal and objective evidence to show this is a possible benefit. Over time due to emotional stress, lack of self-care, chronic postural dysfunctions and more, fascia can become stuck and not as mobile restricting range of motion and feeling tight. Muscles begin to form micro-contractures in the fibers which we commonly refer to as “knots.” In theory, using pressure on these locations of tension for a period of time can cause an autogenic response. An autogenic response in this case means the receptors that sense length get overwritten by the receptors sensing tension causing them to release. A long term foam rolling can help teach the nervous system the proper alignment and fiber length.
Increased Blood Flow
Laying on a roller will help engage the muscle tissue and stimulate increased blood flow to the area being stimulated. This helps increase nutritional delivery to the affected muscles but also warms up the fibers allowing for better use during exercise.
Help relax or down regulate your nervous system
P-DTR uses the theory of nocioceptors throughout the body. Nocioceptors can sense weakness and pain which causes discomfort and lean you towards a sympathetic state. Pressure helps down-regulate these receptors just like a hug and cause your body to feel more relaxed and decrease your discomfort.
Using foam rolling after a workout can help restore your tissue's natural length and reduce hypertonisity (tightness in muscle fibers). If this problem persists it can all kinds of injuries.
Helps increase flexibility
Foam rollers work off the principal of autogenic inhibition which means that the pressure receptors override the stretch receptors to inhibit. So if you inhibit the stretch receptors through foam rolling then stretch you can increase the extensibility of your muscle fibers.
How do you use a foam roller?
First you want to select the appropriate material for your tissue. This can be dependent on the area you’re trying to benefit. Individuals often believe that firmer is better for results, but this is not necessarily true. When selecting a foam roller you do not want it to be painful as this can elevate your nervous system into sympathetic mode. Instead we want to find one that elicits a solid pressure and feels engaging while not causing pain. This may vary from body part to body part depending on the condition of the muscle fibers and receptors.
Depending on the results you are trying to achieve you may consider changing your approach. For releasing fascia and knots for instance, you would want to hold a static pressure for at least 30 seconds, sometimes 90-120 seconds may be needed. Start at one point of a muscle and work your way along the belly stopping and releasing as you find spots till you get all the way through the fibers.
You can further benefit your rolling by adding active range of motion. After the local tension has dissipated you can add gentle movements in to increase the mechanical effect. This might look like foam rolling your quads and adding flexion and extension to engage the quadriceps on the foam roller allowing for a greater release. Try to keep your time on each muscle group under 120 seconds.
Foam rolling or Self-Myofascial Release, is a fantastic tool for taking care of your body. It can be easily incorporated during a warm-up, during your workout, or cool-down. Using our understanding of the nervous system we can explain why it may help calm you down or de-stress you. Remember, it's better to prevent injuries than it is to try and recover from them.