Why do we foam roll & how does foam rolling work?
Most of you will have had a go on this torturous piece of equipment, encouraged by your coaches to work on those tight areas and help improve range. However, do we know why? Does foam rolling actually help increase range of motion? How does foam rolling work? As a sports therapist, I often give my clients some foam rolling homework to do to help simmer down their fiery trigger points. But how does this work? As a relatively new method, there is a lack of science behind the theory.
I’ve heard and seen numerous coaches’ state that we need to foam roll to help “mash up” any scar tissue in the muscle or break down adhesions. But is this what foam rolling does? In my clinic, I use manual therapy to help treat my clients, so the science behind foam rolling, if proven, would help strengthen my argument for this practice.
I’m about to delve into the science behind foam rolling, albeit very briefly to give you guys a little understanding of the magic of it all.
What is SMR & how is it related to foam rolling?
Foam rolling is otherwise known as self myofascial release (SMR). Fascia is part of the connective tissue that envelopes and penetrates muscles, nerves, organs etc. and extends throughout the whole body. More and more research is being presented on the role of the fascial system. Think of it like this. Fascia is a sheet that is all around the body and inter webbed between our muscles and organs. Therefore if one part of the fascia is restricted/shortened then this can influence areas above and below.
To keep this blog relatively short, I won’t go into detail about the role of the fascia other than it is thought to help provide structural integrity, support and protection. We do know that we need the fascia (surrounding our muscles etc) to be unrestricted in terms of movement and to remain consistent throughout.
When we think this isn’t the case we can apply myofascial release, which is addressing localised tightness in the fascia surround the muscles. There are numerous amounts of manual therapy techniques to do this. Although one way to perform this to yourself, is supposedly via a foam roller.
Why does the fascia shorten?
It is thought following acute inflammation, fascia may shorten and lose its extensibility properties and therefore the previous range of motion you had is now restricted and painful (Findley, 2012).
Pic: Semi naked man in shorts with one leg raised
What does foam rolling actually do?
It is thought that when we foam roll, we perform myofascial release, which may decrease pain and increase blow flow. But how does myofascial release work? Are we “mashing up scar tissue” like I’ve heard people say before?
The research suggests no. Previous thoughts were related to this and mechanical change within the muscle. However, similar to stretching your muscles, we believe there is more of a neural response. How many of you guys thought that when you stretch your muscles, you actually get structural deformation, which maintains the new range of motion? Unfortunately, we all know that after a good stretch, the new range of motion is not maintained for long unless you vigorously stay on top of your stretching. We believe this change in the muscle length is more of a neural response via the central nervous system (perhaps another blog topic here). What we think happens is that when pressure is applied via the foam roller, receptors send signals to the brain which then allow the muscle to reduce its contracted position and therefore increase range of motion. A great review on fascial neurobiology can be found here; http://www.thebodymechanic.ca/2012/10/28/fascial-neurobiology-an-explanation-for-possible-manual-therapy-treatment-effects/
Why don’t we just stretch?
So if we are using foam rolling to increase range of motion then why don’t we just stretch statically? It’s definitely less painful. Studies have shown that static stretching can impede muscular power output immediately after stretching (Pinto et al., 2014). As we step up to the platform about to throw a heavy weight above our head, we need all of the power we can produce. Foam rolling on the other hand has been shown to increase range of motion whilst not impeding the production of muscular force (MacDonald 2012).
In my opinion, foam rolling is a great way to help increase and maintain range of motion. This should be performed regularly. Most importantly it needs to be understood that foam rolling does not make up the entire warm up. This is just a piece in the puzzle.
Craig Hardingham, BSc Hons Sports Therapy. Crossfit level 1 coach.
Injured; Injury; Physiotherapy; Sports Therapy; Crossfit; Sports injury; Shoulder pain;