How a foam roller can help you

Over the last decade or so a dense cylindrical piece of foam made its way into virtually every health club, gym and athletic training facility; and for good reason. If you have ever seen a foam roller and wondered “what’s that used for,” you’re not alone. The goal of this article is to provide you with some answers surrounding this tool, and how it can play a crucial role ensuring that you stay injury free.

Before we can properly discuss foam rolling techniques, and the theories behind them, we must first have an understanding of fascia and its function as it relates to our muscles. Fascia is a structure of connective tissue that surrounds muscles, groups of muscles, blood vessels, and nerves, binding some structures together, while permitting others to slide smoothly over each other. Fascia is what gives each individual muscle its shape and works smoothly with the correlating muscles around it. Through injuries, improper technique, and inadequate recovery time, fascia can develop scar tissue. This scar tissue will inhibit a muscles’ ability to pass over another muscle, which can impair firing mechanics and cause inflammation. We can think of damaged fascia and healthy fascia as the two sides of Scotch Tape. If you rub the non sticky side of the tape across your arm it glides over the skin smoothly with little resistance. However if you try this with the sticky side (fascia that has accumulated scar tissue) you will find that it is abrasive and will pull the skin.

A common misconception about foam rolling is that it is meant to be a tool used for stretching. Foam rolling is designed to be a form of self-myofascial release (SMR). There are two basic neural receptors built into our muscles, muscle spindles and golgi tendo organs (GTOs). These receptors are designed to protect the body from being overstretched, preventing injury. Stimulation of the GTOs past a certain threshold inhibits the muscle spindle activity and in turn decreases muscular tension. Through SMR we can apply tension to specific parts of the muscle, causing the muscle spindles and GTOs to relax. This principle, known as autogenic inhibition, is the primary use of foam rollers.

A crucial component that will dictate the effectiveness of foam rolling is proper technique. Often, foam rollers are being used as an aggressive massaging tool by rolling up and down the muscle at a rapid pace, as opposed to proper technique. Proper technique, as defined by the National Academy of Sports Medicine, includes: slowly rolling down the muscle and stopping at each “hot spot” and waiting for the pain to diminish before continuing further down the muscle. These hot spots are often referred to as trigger points and typically require between 10-30 seconds of pressure before signals to the central nervous system can tell the muscle to relax. There are mixed opinions on when to roll, how long to roll, and how often, though common practices include both pre and post workout. Many performance coaches recommend foam rolling as a daily activity, regardless of whether or not the individual has worked out. It is also important to note that the proper amount of pressure plays a vital role in the effectiveness of foam rolling. Whilst the exact amount of pressure is hard to define, the process of foam rolling should never be extremely painful, as you could potentially cause further damage to the muscles.

Unfortunately the research surrounding foam rolling is scarce and inconclusive. There are very few studies covering the effects of foam rolling and most were performed with variables that could have lead to misleading results. For example, in 2006, a study published by the Journal of Undergraduate Research found that foam rolling the hamstring was an ineffective method of increasing range of motion. Some possible errors involved with this study, in my opinion, was the lack of warm-up prior to foam rolling, rolling only performed at a frequency of three times per week, and improper technique. That said there is a reason the foam roller has become a tool embraced by the athletic community and virtually every health club out there. For more information on foam rolling, please contact Seattle Athletic Club Personal Trainer, Will Paton.



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