Foam rolling is everywhere. Athletes and fitness enthusiasts don’t leave the gym without it.
But why? It hurts.
Well, let’s see:
- It’s claimed to stop your muscles from feeling sore
- It increases the range of movement in your joints
- It helps your flexibility
- It’s a good warm up
- It loosens you up
- It can even get that niggling crack in your back
Is it just another fad? Does it even work? If it does work, why? The explanations for why foam rolling works can range from squeezing the lactic acid out of your muscles to lazy PTs proclaiming, “it just works”.
So, what is really happening when I foam roll?
One of the leading ideas is ‘myofascial release’, or the release of muscle ‘fascia’. This is also the leading theory on what massages are do too.
Fascia is a thin, almost see-through, layer of connective tissue made of collagen and elastin. It surrounds every muscle fibre, organ, nerve fibre, and bone in your body. A bit like a spider web.
In your muscles, fascia is wrapped around every cell and fibre. Fascia helps to give your muscles shape, it attaches tendons to bones and keeps them together. Without fascia you couldn’t run, jump, climb, swim, cycle, or even breathe.
The purpose of fascia is much more than just for structural support. It’s a vital part of your body for all kinds of metabolic functions. Fascia itself is actually quite firm and inflexible – which contributes toward making your muscles feel stiff and tight.
Fascia is believed to sometimes become a bit tangled, forming “adhesions”. Ideally, your muscle fibres would all slide beside each other, silkily smooth. But if they’re getting tangled, that will definitely make you feel stiff, tight, and sore.
Adhesions can form for all kinds of reasons:
You can get them from working out too much or in the wrong way or, sometimes, even not at all. You can get them from injuries, illnesses, and trauma.
What’s important is how you get rid of these fascia-tangles. And that’s why you foam roll.
Foam rolling is believed to untangle fascia and loosen up adhesions, when the fascia moves again your muscles become limber and malleable. At least, that’s the theory.
The jury has been out, as far as the science goes for the past decade or so, over whether foam rolling itself really does loosen up fascia. Or even really help in any way at all.
While sports professionals and athletes have been raving about how great foam rolling is, science has had to catch-up on whether foam rolling truly does bring any benefits. If it does, why? No-one really knew.
The fascia thing was a good guess – and it could have all just been an elaborate rouse to get people to buy some foam cylinders. But, today, science is catching up.
There is now a wealth of scientific literature investigating foam rolling.
What the science says about foam rolling
A study by Allison N Schroeder et. al., at the University of Ohio, conducted a fantastic literature review on “Self Myofasical Release”.
It looked into the effectiveness of foam rolling as a pre-exercise and recovery strategy. In most of the literature they reviewed, evidence pointed toward foam rolling before exercise as bringing an increased range of movement. Great news.
This makes sense. Only one article out of nine found no change in range of movement. This gives strong evidence that foam rolling relieves adhesions between fascia layers to give that greater range of motion.
The researchers also found two studies indicating that foam rolling increased vertical jump height and maximum muscle force output. There was an indication that performance benefits are duration dependent. However, others showed no change in muscle performance.
Where there was evidence for increased muscle performance it was noted that there was no increase in muscle contraction. This indicated that the foam rolling is reducing neural inhibition giving better communication from receptors in the fascia to the muscle.
All of the researcher’s reviewed articles found that foam rolling decreased muscle soreness and fatigue after exercise. One of the articles even indicated that foam rolling could improve arterial function.
Lactic acid release in foam rolling is friendly
Some say foam rolling could be “ergogenic”, meaning the release of lactic acid could actually improve performance during exercise. A study by L. B. Gladden in The Journal of Physiology backs this up, stating that it’s an important part of many metabolic processes.
It also shows that it’s an “important intermediate in the process of wound repair and regeneration”.
For years, lactic acid (or lactate as it becomes) has been considered a criminal in our body’s processes. Recent scientific discussions have been defending lactic acid and lactate, attempting to encourage the scientific community to reconsider that it’s actually a friend and doesn’t cause us pain.
To really drive this home, lactic acid levels in muscles have been shown to return to pre-execise amounts within 60 minutes after exercise. Not much of a problem if it goes away within an hour.
Planking vs. foam rolling
A study carried out at the University of Rhode Island compared the effect of planking or foam rolling before exercise on post-exercise fatigue. Kellie found that fatigue after exercise was significantly less with foam rolling than when participants had planked.
Interestingly, this study also noted that neither planking or foam rolling brought about any significant difference in their performance during exercise. They were in agreement with Schroeder.
Better range of movement
This study also found evidence to support Schroeder. It found that, after foam rolling, the participants had significantly greater range of movement and no decrease in muscle performance.
Adding more fuel to the fire, this group of researchers found that using a “roller massager” on your quadriceps increases the range of motion of your knee-joint. The study looked at “roller massaging” for different lengths of time: 20 seconds and 60 seconds. As you might imagine, “roller massaging” for longer gives you an even better improvement in your range of movement.
It’s been shown to help medical conditions
A study carried out in Spain showed foam rolling significantly improved Fibromyalgia symptoms in participants, making for an excellent complimentary therapy. A study at Elon University found that myofascial release treatments helped improve an 18-year old female’s idiopathic scoliosis. She found she was in less pain, had more mobility, better posture, lung function, and quality of life.
Another study at the University of Miami found myofascial release alleviated symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritus and collagenous colitis. A 54-year old woman presented symptoms of both conditions and received myofascial release massages six times, over two weeks. Her symptoms improved.
She maintained her improvements for five weeks until her symptoms returned. After another two treatments, her symptoms improved again. Convinced?
The type of roller matters
The type of foam roller you choose is important too. Of course, I’ve found a study to back this up, where researchers compared the difference in pressure exerted on soft tissue by different foam rollers.
One had a rigid plastic pipe core and the other had a foam core. They found, as you might imagine, that the rigid pipe roller exerted the most pressure on soft tissues. As well as exerting less pressure, rollers with a foam core also have a tendency to warp and deform making them quite difficult to use.
So, it might hurt more, but better to invest in something more solid.
What does this all mean?
From the studies we’ve looked at, we can say this:
- Lactic acid is not an issue. That problem is a myth.
- There is strong evidence that foam rolling relives “adhesions” in fascia layers.
- It’s unclear if foam rolling improves muscular function, but evidence points to foam rolling reducing inhibition in muscles.
- If there are any performance improvements, they don’t seem to last very long.
- It possibly improves arterial function.
- It does improve range of movement in joints, improving your flexibility.
- Foam rolling could improve symptoms of some medical conditions.
- Taking more time to roll gives better results.
- Rigid rollers are best.
The jury can come back in.
After years of science being unsure about foam rolling, we have our answers. The evidence is quite clear that there are plenty of benefits to foam rolling.
Whether foam rolling really does untangle fascia is still not definite. But as to why you should go buy yourself a roller right away?
Foam rolling will give you an increased range of motion in your joints, you won’t be as sore after a workout, you won’t feel as fatigued.
Foam rolling probably doesn’t improve your muscle performance, as such, but it does seem to decrease inhibition in your muscles, which makes it easier to perform. You might find that you’re generally just in better health if you foam roll regularly.
So – use a foam roller. Do it often. Take your time over it. And you’ll never look back.
Want to read more like this? Check out the rest of the blog or my site, Home Sweet Gym, where I talk about how to exercise from the comfort of your own home.
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