To foam roller or not to foam roller??
Most of us will be familiar with the torturous ‘foam roller’. You may diligently punish yourself after a run with a session of self inflicted pain, roll precariously around on a spiky ball or grit your teeth as you smash the hell out of your ITB with a giant contraption that wouldn’t look out of place in an Anne Summers store.
But why do it??? And why does it hurt??
Firstly there is very little good quality evidence that it actually does any good. A systematic review of the literature in 2019 found some evidence that it may be effective for improving range of movement (ROM) in a joint and reducing stiffness prior to training. Post training it may reduce DOMS. A meta analysis in 2019 also found that there were slightly better benefits using a foam roller prior to exercise and using it after could reduce pain perception.
Foam rollering is a form of ‘self myofascial release’. Its something you do to yourself! Fascia is the term used for the connective tissue of the body which is primarily constructed from collagen. Collagen makes up skin, tendons, ligaments and covers muscle tissue. It is super strong and proportionally stronger than steel cable. Collagen is a protein that’s role is to resist tensile stress and the cells that make it called fibroblasts exhibit the ability to remember their function. Therefore the collagen changes its fiber density based on structural stress and tissue memory.
In a healthy musculoskeletal system the fascia supports free movement of our muscles and bones through the huge variety of shapes that we see in sport, performance art, and life. When this tissue becomes dysfunctional it can be a great cause of movement restriction and pain.
Dysfunctional areas of fascia are referred to as knots, ropes, gristle, adhesions, and scar tissue. There aren’t actually knots and ropes under your skin. Instead there is mal-alignment of tissue due to trauma and injury, poor motor patterns, and emotional distress. Releasing these tissues is simply creating a biochemical and mechanical change that will give us an opportunity to create more efficient movement patterns in the future.
So foam rollering isn’t stretching out the muscle or breaking down scar tissue as is usually claimed but a way of manipulating the fascia and applying a short term change to the neural system to allow for short term changes that can lead to improved ROM in a joint.
Foam rollering hurts because usually folks go at it far to vigorously and are actually just damaging the tissue under the skin. Good self myofascial release allows for time for the tissue to adapt to the pressure and often its a ‘let down’ response. The optimum dosage for foam rollering seems to be 90-120 secs on a muscle group. It needs to be done regularly for it to have any effect and its vital that the treatment is backed up with good dynamic exercises that encourage a full ROM through the effected joint.
So it may be that you add a short session on the foam roller prior to a training session, 1-2 mins worth. Other than that you cant beat good quality dynamic warm ups, good training and strengthening your soft tissue.