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  • Writer's pictureSophie Beaudry

The Truth Behind Foam Rolling


I can’t tell you how often I’ve been asked, “Do you think I should be foam rolling?” or “Should I be stretching or foam rolling?” And truth be told, I’m not 100% sure. In my professional opinion and according to my knowledge base, I would say yes because theoretically, I don’t see how it wouldn’t be beneficial. However, has it been researched? Is there scientific data to back-up this theory?


To start, for those who are unsure or don’t know what foam rolling is,


What is foam rolling?


Foam rolling is also known as self-manual therapy or a self-myofascial release technique using bodyweight against a cylinder device to apply pressure to tight tissues in order to release them. Or, in more simple terms, you take this foam cylinder device, lay an area against it putting as much or as little pressure with your body weight as desired and, start rolling back and forth to hopefully reduce tissue stiffness in the area.

Let's dig deeper... What is happening underneath the skin?

Muscle fibers contain nerve receptors called muscle spindles which are primarily responsible to detect a change in muscle length. When applying pressure against a foam roller, these receptors are stimulated causing a mechanical reaction. In other words, once the muscle spindles are stimulated, it sends a signal to the brain to change the length of the muscle to reduce its tension. Fascia, the tissue surrounding the muscle fibers and other organs of the body, also contain nerve receptors which have a similar process.

*Please refer to my blog-post, The Scoop on Fascia, to learn more about fascia.


Once you have applied pressure with the foam roller to the desired area, it is common to roll in a back and forth motion with the cylinder along the entirety of the muscle. This causes an increase in blood flow which can ‘warm-up’ or ‘cool-down’ the muscles and tissues of the area. This ‘warm-up’ could be very beneficial before a sporting event or physical activity since it prepares your muscles and tissues for the movement or the work it’ll have to endure and can, therefore, help enhance performance. It can also be very beneficial after exercise, during a ‘cool-down’, because it’ll help eliminate the excess build-up of lactic acid in the blood.

 

SIDEBAR: What is lactic acid?

Lactic acid is a substance produced by the body during anaerobic exercise. Anaerobic exercise is a high-intensity exercise that doesn’t allow the body to deliver sufficient oxygen to the muscles fast enough. Examples of anaerobic exercise include heavy weight training, sprints, jumping, etc. Too much lactic acid in the body causes muscle soreness, spasms, cramps, weakness, and fatigue.

 

Furthermore, by increasing the blood flow to an area with a foam roller, there is an increase in oxygen and nutrients to that same area. This increase in oxygen and nutrients allows the muscles to properly function and properly use the energy being produced during exercise to allow it to regenerate and grow stronger. This process can also help reduce delayed onset muscle soreness following exercise. How you might ask? Oxygen binds to the lactic acid that your body could have produced during exercise and then transports it to your liver via your bloodstream. The liver then breaks down the lactic acid and eliminates it from the body.


Additionally to the accumulation of lactic acid, strenuous exercise can cause micro-damage to the tissues and muscles. This too can be responsible for delayed onset muscle soreness following physical activity. The body naturally produces inflammation to help heal this damage which can also be a cause of that post-exercise muscle soreness and fatigue. Once again, increasing blow flow to the area that has been worked on allows proper nutrients to replenish the tissues and, for the area to be properly drained. Using a foam roller can, therefore, help reduce that delayed onset muscle soreness that can set in 1 to 5 days following exercise.


Rolling also helps break-up any scar tissue found in the area which can help increase range of motion and flexibility. The friction caused by rolling back and forth on the cylinder with the applied pressure of the bodyweight breaks down and elongates the scar tissue. This process causes an increase of blood flow to the area which can result in mild inflammation. DO NOT be afraid of the mention of mild inflammation. As long as the inflammation process is controlled and not chronic, it’s the body’s natural way to protect itself and to heal tissues that have been damaged.

What is the research saying on the topic?

Current research suggests that foam rolling can be beneficial for the reasons mentioned above. However, more research is needed to draw stronger conclusions on the topic. Further research is needed to determine the most effective foam rolling program to establish the best type of roller, how much pressure should be applied, the duration, repetitions, sets, frequency, etc.


To sum up, foam rolling has been suggested to have some benefits. However, when introducing a new therapy to your routine, it is always essential to listen to your body’s response. Your body may react differently to foam rolling in comparison to someone else. Please note that if choosing to incorporate foam rolling into your routine, it is important to avoid bony areas, such as your spine, to prevent undesired results and injuries. Do proper research or talk to your healthcare provider to learn how to properly use a foam roller in different areas of the body to reduce the risk of injury and to ensure foam rolling is right for you.


If you found this information interesting, please give it a like, comment below or subscribe to my channel to stay updated with new blog-posts.


RECAP:

Benefits of foam rolling include;

- Decrease muscle tension and stiffness

- Decrease muscle pain and spasms

- Enhanced muscle performance

- Reduce delayed onset muscle soreness and fatigue

- Break-up scar tissue

- Increase range of motion and flexibility


Current research suggests that there are benefits to foam rolling, however, more research is needed to draw stronger conclusions and to determine the most effective foam rolling program (i.e., duration, frequency, etc.).


RELATED ARTICLES:

A Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Foam Rolling on Performance and Recovery by WIEWELHOVE, T. et al.


Duration of Myofascial Rolling for Optimal Recovery, Range of Motion, and Performance: A Systematic Review of the Literature by GARRETT, A.H. & LEANNE, M.R.


Foam Rolling for Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness and Recovery of Dynamic Performance Measures by PEARCEY, G.E. et al.


Is Self-Myofascial Release an Effective Pre-exercise and Recovery Strategy? A Literature Review by SCHROEDER, A.N., & BEST, T.M.


The Effects of Self-Myofascial Release Using a Foam Roll or Roller Massager on Joint Range of Motion, Muscle Recovery, and Performance: A Systematic Review by CHEATHAM, S. W., et al.


The Evidence Behind Foam Rolling: A Review by COLE G.

 

This blog-post should not be interpreted as a systematic review. The information posted here was built on the scientific articles that I had at my disposal, which were interesting to me and relevant to the topic. Please feel free to comment below any links to scientific articles that are related to the subject.

 

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