Foam Rolling is a popular tool being used in the rehabilitation, sports, and fitness world to help with "myofascial release". Fascia surrounds tissues of the body, and also helps with adhering vessels and structures to one another. Because its main function is to hold structures together, it is said that fascia being too tight can cause a adverse effect on muscle function. This post will educate you at when, how, and why to use it.
What They Say It Does, and What The Research Says
- Increases flexibility long term: In all studies including studies reviewed within the ones I reviewed, flexibility (dynamic and static) increased 3.4-4.3% in lower extremities short-term only, not long-term. Measured flexibility was increased right after bouts of foam rolling, however within 1 week and up to 8 weeks, flexibility was not sustained if not combined with resistance training or other methods of stretching (static and PNF).
- Relieves soreness: One study looked at foam rolling effects on Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS), and participants reported decreased soreness after high intensity exercises that caused DOMS. DOMS is moderate to severe soreness ~48 hours after a workout.
- Stretches the fascia resulting in increased flexibility: In numerous studies, it reports that the fascia actually stretching does not occur in foam rolling. In one of the studies, it states even for a 1% fascia stretch, the pain and pressure levels are not bearable. So although flexibility may increase short term, this is not the mechanism.
- Increases blood flow: One study proposed that stiffness in arteries at the region being worked decreases, therefore more blood flow enters which may be a mechanism for increased flexibility. With more blood flow, it may be assumed muscle performance is increased, however there have been findings that support the same, decreased, or increased performance.
Below is an explanation of mechanisms, if you prefer to just learn what to do, skip to "How to Foam Roll".
Flexibility and Soreness Relief: What's Really Going on?
It's not the fascia being stretched (why do they call it myofascial release then?), so what causes the acute increased flexibility? First we need to understand active vs. passive range of motion (ROM) of a muscle.
Active ROM is when you use your own muscle contraction to move your body or limb as far as you can. Muscles tighten up due to, in short, the neurological components of your muscle. The neurological components tell your muscles to tighten up if they feel the muscle is lengthening too far.
Passive ROM is when someone else stretches you without you giving any effort. Muscles begin tightening up due to more of the structural components of the muscle rather than neurological.
Foam rolling acts on the nuerological components of flexibility. It stimulates neurological components such as 2 out of 4 mechanoreceptors and the golgi tendon organs. By stimulating these, less spasm and tightening of the muscle occurs and flexibility is increased short-term.
As far as soreness goes, pain threshold increases. Although the soreness is there, increased pain threshold means a person may not perceive the soreness as high. This is also why people begin to use foam rollers that are more dense. It's not because their muscle structure is changing, it's because their mechano- and pain receptors need a increased stimulus.
How to Foam Roll
There are a lot of different recommendations. One study suggested the ideal way is do each region of the body for a minute, while another suggested 30-40 seconds (or 10 times each area) for 3 sets. As far as exactly which positions should be done, there are many, so it is best to look at other resources. In regards to flexibility, it is beneficial to do both single and multiple regions of the body (fascial trains). Most studies recommended 3 times a week.
In regards to flexibility, I am a firm believer that traditional stretching is the way to go. Most people go to foam rolling because it takes less time, and it's painful ("no pain no gain, I must be getting better, right?"). Of course you can do both, but if you had to choose one, I would go with traditional stretching over foam rolling. As far as soreness, if you are consistently so sore that you need to foam roll everyday, it may be due to programming. I good program should leave you sore a few times, not all the time. Although no studies have been done to confirm this, I feel if you are foam rolling with high-density rollers 5-7 days a week, it is causing bad trauma on your muscles, it's best to give it a rest when it comes to recovery. Just because you are not sore, it does not mean you are not getting better. Lastly, few studies are out studying the affects of foam rolling on the spine (a bony structure opposed to muscular), so I have no say on that. Disagree or have something to add? Comment below.
Bushell, J.E., Dawson, S.M., and Webster, M.M. (2015). Clinical relevance of foam rolling n hip extension angle in a functional lunge position. Journal of Strength and Conditioning. 29(9): 2397-2403
Junker, D.H., and Stoggl, T.L. (2015). Foam rolling improves hamstring flexibility. Journal of Strength and Conditioning. 29(12): 3481 - 3485
Pearcey, G., Bradbury-Squires, D.J., Kawamoto, J., Drinkwater, and E.J., Behm, D.G., Button, D.C. (2015). Foam Rolling for delayed-onset muscle soreness and recovery of dynamic performance measures. Journal of Athletic Training. 50(1): 5-13
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