Foam rollers… you see them, you may even use them, but what are they good for? That is the question I am hoping to answer today! Foam rolling is a form of self myofascial release (SMR). I use this modality with many of my clients who have tight muscles and reduced flexibility at specific joints in an effort to get those tight areas to relax before an exercise session. I go through great efforts to identify muscle imbalances in my clients that need SMR, stretching, or conversely, strengthening. But the question remains… what does foam rolling actually do?!?! Well a fantastic review came out recently using 118 research papers. So here is a summary of what is going on with the body when we use SMR techniques, and what it is useful for.
What happens when we foam roll
I think it is prudent to first look at what fascia is, because that is the targeted tissue of SMR. Well fascia is complex, but it can be described as force transmission system made up of connective tissue that permeates the human body. Some times tender spots in discrete, taut bands of hardened muscle that produce local and referred pain develop. These are spots are called trigger points. Subsequently, these trigger points are targeted during SMR before or after exercise.
Although we (i.e. the scientific literature) are still not sure on exactly why SMR works, the best evidence points towards a neurophysiological mechanism (like stretch tolerance). This mechanism involves changes in muscle activity acutely, which differs from the way stretching is effective. Other ways SMR may work include lowering tissue pH, releasing inflammatory mediators (reduce inflammation), and re-hydrating the tissue.
What foam rolling is good for
ACUTE (IMMEDIATE) EFFECTS OF FOAM ROLLING ON FLEXIBILITY
SMR causes an increase in short-term flexibility that lasts for >10 minutes. However, it’s not exactly clear how much SMR is needed to achieve this outcome. Unlike stretching, SMR does not affect athletic performance in the short-term. Static stretching, on the other hand, often causes a temporary reduction in muscle performance. Additionally, SMR may decrease soreness and increase pressure pain threshold as a result of DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) during the 48 hours following exercise.
CHRONIC (LONG TERM) EFFECTS OF FOAM ROLLING ON FLEXIBILITY
SMR can increase flexibility in a long-term program of >2 weeks with effects similar to traditional stretching programs. Research has also found SMR to improve arterial stiffness, improve vascular endothelial function, reduce cortisol (stress hormone) levels post-exercise, increase parasympathetic activity(high frequency HRV), and reduce sympathetic activity (low frequency HRV). Interestingly, SMR might also improve balance in chronic stroke patients.
There is a lot of information above but when it comes to YOUR exercise routine, here’s what you need to know. SMR can help with your flexibility immediately after foam rolling for a short time, and will have lasting results when done consistently. It will also help with DOMS so you don’t feel like crying the day after you do squats! Finally, it will tell your brain to release happy hormones so you leave the gym with a big ole smile 🙂
For more information, and to learn about the nerdy sciency stuff, you can access the article at the link here.