To start, let's define what foam rolling is!
Used by an abundance of fitness enthusiasts and athletes foam rolling as a self-manual therapy that improves athletic performance, flexibility, reduces the delayed onset of muscle soreness (DOMS) and improves recovery. The most common and popular method is the use of a foam roller, overtaking self massage and self trigger point therapy in regards to self myofascial release.
To understand how it fully works we need to look at how it affects fascial tissue, the central nervous system, and what myofascia is.
The word “Myo” refers to the Latin term for muscle, and “Fascia” refers to a band or sheet of connective tissue made up of primarily collagen that rests beneath the skin and over and around the muscles that provide structural support, movement stabilization, and guides the line of pull of the muscles. It is spread throughout the whole body from head to toe and works in sync to provide smooth, controlled movements.
However, if areas on the fascia become overly active or tight it can radiate to other parts of the body and affect them in a negative way later on, such as restrictions in Range of motion (ROM) and local blood flow.
This is where Myofascial release comes in, it’s intended to have a direct effect by reducing localized myofascial tightness. By the pressure applied by foam rolling and stimulating the central nervous system through mechanoreceptors in the fascia to signal the muscle and fascia in the area affected to be less active and relaxed.
In regards to flexibility and athletic performance, having full range of motion without any functional hinderances is key. It temporarily improves short-term flexibility which is why it has started to make an introduction into warm up routines for athletes and fitness enthusiasts alike, since it’s been proven to be more beneficial than static stretching that was the norm up till recently.
It is best used as part of a warm-up routine, spending about 20 to 30 seconds per area and regularly being performed 3 to 5 times per week to achieve the long term affects on flexibility it provides. Moreover due to its capability of reducing the effects of DOM’s or immediate soreness following physical activity, it may also provide a meaningful addition to recovery routines particularly during the intense training and competition periods.
It can be an extremely effective tool when used properly, however if not, you risk irritating and possibly injuring your body even further.
Some common foam rolling mistakes to avoid are…
Mistake #1: You’re rolling in the wrong direction
If it feels hard to balance on the foam roller, you might be rolling the wrong way. It may be sitting too parallel to the muscle to get much benefit, turn it so it lays perpendicular to the(length of) muscle, then roll up and down the entire length of the muscle.
Mistake #2: Your rolling over boney areas
Foam rollers are meant to release tension in soft tissue, so rolling over boney spots is unnecessary, zero benefit and will probably just be painful. Common areas to avoid on the upper body tend to be the shoulder blades and spine as well as the hips, pelvis and tailbone on the lower body. To put it simply, only stick with your soft areas!
Mistake #3: You’re not using the right pressure
If you’re rolling to gently it might not have an impact, and if you’re going too hard you could add to the pain and end up tensing up your muscles in response, which is the complete opposite of the goal. Ultimately you control the pressure as you roll, putting your whole weight onto one spot, especially a trigger point, may feel very intense, so propping up a leg or elbow to adjust the amount you put on is a good strategy. And ideally you only want to be applying pressure at a self rated 5 out of 10, any more than that and you are very likely to Stiffen up while you roll which will be counterproductive.
Since the subject of foam rolling is fairly new there is still a lack of Knowledge to fully support how it truly affects flexibility, performance and recovery. There is also not enough information surrounding it’s practical application, such as a variety of methods to roll particular muscle groups as well as the optimal amount of reps and sets to achieve the optimal results.
Simply put not enough studies and research is known at the moment to fully understand the full effects and benefits, but for now it can be suggested that this tool can provide a meaningful impact on training if applied in the proper manner.