How Does Foam Rolling Work?

by Jim Richardson | Last Updated: April 28, 2020

Foam rolling is a therapeutic technique that uses foam cylinders to relax, release and lengthen body tissue. It is often called the “poor man’s massage.” Favored by exercisers and athletes of all levels, especially runners, it is thought to have multiple benefits. As with any other type of exercise or therapy, you should know exactly how it works or effects your body before you begin.

Image : Oleg Lindberg / Shutterstock

 

Why You Should Foam Roll

When muscles and connective tissues become tight, you end up losing flexibility and range of motion. At best, this simply puts some limitations on your activities and performance. At worst, however, it can result in extreme imbalances that put you at risk of injury. Tightness also can result in soreness and spasms. Another issue is that, if you have trigger points, the “knot” in the tissue cannot do much work for you, as it’s already tight and contracted. The result is that you can’t perform as well, because you can’t engage all your muscle fibers for the job. By foam rolling, you can loosen up your muscles and get rid of the trigger points that are inhibiting you. As a bonus, rolling is thought to break up scar tissue and adhesions that are the result of exercise-induced microtears and swelling, increasing blood flow for fast recovery and healing and letting tissues slide past each other better.

 

The Basic Technique

Whether you are foam rolling at home or in a professional physical therapist’s office, the basic technique remains the same. You position yourself on the roller, making sure you are stable. You then roll slowly to the side, forward or back, letting your body weight provide pressure. When you find a tender spot, you hold yourself in position, breathe deeply and allow the muscle or fascia to release or relax. If you are doing it properly, any discomfort you feel should lessen when the tissue lets go. Once you take care of the tender area, you continue to roll, moving on to the next. Each hold should last 30 to 60 seconds, and an entire rolling session usually lasts 5 to 10 minutes. You can roll one to three times per day, depending on your needs and specific conditions.

What’s Happening In Depth

Although there are several theories about why foam rolling seems to help, the most common explanation involves tiny sensors in the body known as mechanoreceptors. These are found in the fascia tissue that surrounds your muscles. There are three different types of mechanoreceptors: Golgi tendon organ, Ruffini and Pacinian corpuscles. All three of these types of mechanoreceptors respond to various types of mechanical stimulation, including the pressure you get when you foam roll. When you use your roller, the mechanoreceptors trigger a protective spinal cord reflex that gets the muscle to relax. You can enjoy less pain and greater flexibility and range of motion as a result.

A Note on Research

Importantly, research on foam rolling is still ongoing. Scientists are still looking into all the different mechanisms that might be involved during a rolling session, so even though they favor the mechanoreceptor theory, foam rolling is still controversial. In fact, some of the reasons behind foam rolling, such as trigger points, are still being researched, as well. Additionally, for all the perceived benefits foam rolling has, experts know that not everyone is going to respond in exactly the same way. You might find that you have significantly more or less benefit from this type of massage than someone else. Professionals also have found that rolling prior to a workout can decrease performance in some cases, such as with plyometric training. Even if scientists are right about how these tools work, therefore, you have to be somewhat cautious about when you apply them.

Conclusion

Foam rolling is thought to promote muscle relaxation and get rid of trigger points, which can increase flexibility and range of motion. Ultimately, this can lead to better performance and decreased risk of injury. The basic technique involves slowly rolling over a problematic area, holding on a tender spot for up to a minute and then continuing to the next sore area. You can do this up to three times a day. The most widely accepted theory about how foam rollers physically work centers around mechanoreceptors in the fascia surrounding muscles, which trigger the muscles to release. Research is still ongoing, however, and results can vary from person to person.

References:

Kelsey, D. (n.d.). Does Foam Rolling Work? Or Does It Just Hurt a Lot?

Kuhland, (n.d.). What Is a Foam Roller, How Do I Use It, and Why Does It Hurt?

Sedona, J. (2014). What Does Foam Rolling Actually Do?

Quinn, E. (2013). How to Use a Foam Roller.

Verran, V. (2007).The (Almost) Magical Foam Roller




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