Foam Rolling…What Is It & Why Do It?
A tool that was once reserved for serious athletes only, foam rollers have hit the mainstream in the last few years.
Nowadays, when it comes to self-myofascial release, there’s a wide array of tools, techniques and information available; foam rollers alone come in different shapes, densities, lengths…and it can all become a bit confusing.
In any given gym you will see folks foam rolling their way from head to toe at warp speed, working away with no real purpose or strategy. It begs the question – what are we really trying to affect and how?
What Is It?
Foam rolling is a form of self-myofascial release (SMFR) or self-massage that involves the application of pressure to specific points on your body. I normally recommend clients to use foam rolling before a workout as tissue prep or passively after, for recovery purposes. If performance enhancement is the end goal, using the foam roller will aid in tissue recovery and restoration of normal tissue function and pain-free movement.
So, How Does It Differ From Stretching?
Stretching is great, I love stretching, but it’s not always the answer. Why? The best analogy is one I always use with new clients; imagine a bungee cord with a knot tied in it. Now imagine pulling/stretching the cord at each end; it creates tension either side of the knot, but the knot remains. These “knots” or trigger points are simply a result of life; training, flexibility, posture, movement patters, hydration, nutrition, stress and rest are all contributing factors.
The deep compression and subsequent release of SMFR allows normal blood flow to return to the tissues and for the restoration of healthy, elastic tissues. However, the same rules apply as with stretching; it should be uncomfortable but not unbearable and you should feel better once it’s over.
How Does It Work?
In a nutshell…the compression from the foam roller helps to break up adhesions and restore normal neural tone and healthy blood flow. If you are confused as to what you are actually working on; muscle, fascia, soft tissue in general…the answer is; all of the above! While it primarily targets the fascia and the trigger points that form in the fascia, when you use a foam roller your nerves, muscles and epithelia are getting rolled too…something to bear in mind if you find yourself going down the “no pain, no gain” route!
I can’t go much further without delving a little deeper into the subject of fascia; what it is and how it affects our ability to move. In essence, it is the glue that holds us all together. Made primarily of densely packed collagen and elastin fibres, it is a continuous sheath of tissue that extends from head to toe, front to back and permeates our muscles, bones, nerves, blood vessels and organs. Fascia is designed to create structure; working on the principle of tensegrity (tension + integrity), whereby a lightwieght, integrated structure delivers great stability. Fascial health is dependent on two key elements – hydration and movement and when these decrease, restrictions and trigger points can occur.
A common misconception is that SMFR will lengthen tissues…but big, dense sheets of fascia like the IT band, plantar fascia and thoracolumbar fascia cannot be lengthened by foam rolling. It can increase hydration, sensation and reduce adhesions between fascial planes which may result in feeling better, reducing inflammation and allowing greater ease of movement…but physically lengthen? No.
So, there you have it…spend 10 minutes at the start of your workout or on a rest day rolling with intention and avoid your fascia going from cobwebs to cables too! If you have any further questions, please leave a comment below.