The popularity of foam rolling is on the rise. You can virtually find some sort of ‘soft tissue device’ at every gym across the country. Although millions of people are actively choosing to grimace in pain on the floor, I question how many of them really know what’s going on.
Don’t get me wrong, there are clear benefits to this practice, both in the warm-up and cool-down phase of exercise. Although these effects are mostly temporary, they are certainly worth working towards if you have the time.
All this being said, there is one myth about foam rolling that needs to come to an end…
"FOAM ROLLING = SELF-MYOFASCIAL RELEASE"
Although these words are seemingly synonymous, it may be surprising to know that in reality, there is no relationship here whatsoever. If you have no idea what I’m talking about — don’t fret.
Here is a clear rundown of what foam rolling is, and what it isn’t.
What rolling CAN do for you.
1. Foam rolling can be an effective tool for warming up. This is especially true when you combine it with dynamic stretching and mobility drills. There is a clear correlation between rolling and a temporary boost in functional range of motion and flexibility which can enhance physical performance.
Additionally, rolling is a powerful way to stimulate the nervous and cardiovascular systems, preparing the body for physical exertion. Please note, however, that these effects are caused by neural factors, and rarely cause any concrete biomechanical changes — more on this later.
2. Foam rolling can assist with cool-down, and even reduces DOMS. Although the mechanisms are still fairly unknown, it has been proven that rolling does decrease the sensation of DOMS (delayed-onset muscle soreness), or that tight, achy feeling in your muscles for 24–72 hours post-workout.
The cause of these changes seems to be related to a reduction in smooth muscle tension and the increase of pliability following the application of pressure. It is also likely that the coinciding improvement in arterial function and parasympathetic activity is related to these recovery benefits. Specific mechanisms aside, there are dozens of studies confirming that foam rolling can cause an immediate effect at the cool-down phase, along with a decreased perception of muscle-related soreness in the days following.
3) Foam rolling can provide temporary pain relief. This is through a mechanism called neural inhibition. In short, rolling can cause neural changes at a muscular site, diminishing the sensation of pain through altering nociception at the spinal cord — interrupting the pain message if you will.
Unfortunately, studies show that this effect is short-lived, lasting around five minutes. Again, this follows the theme that rolling can provide neural effects (increasing your pain tolerance momentarily in this case), but it can rarely cause physical transformation at the tissue level.
What foam rolling CANNOT do for you (AKA the big, hairy lie we’ve been told).
You’ve already read it — foam rolling cannot achieve self-myofascial release. Before getting into the juicy details, let’s touch on some introductory anatomy.
Fascia is a band or sheet of connective tissue that surrounds and stabilizes muscles and organs. As life happens, adhesions or fibrotic scars can build up within layers of this tissue. To achieve true myofascial release, these two sites (whether between muscle and skin AKA fascia superficialis or between two muscle fibers AKA fascia profunda) need to be able to slide past one another.
Unfortunately, when we’re foam rolling, there is no relative motion of these two layers because we’re simply compressing the tissue. This is due to foam rollers being unable to grab onto a tissue layer and hold it in place while another glides past.
To help provide clarity to this matter, place your index finger on your mid-forearm. Now apply light pressure and slide it up towards the hand. Notice how the skin stretches? This is relative motion as you’re grabbing onto a portion of the skin and sliding it over a fascial layer beneath it.
Now grab a pen to mimic a roller. Apply the same amount of pressure with the pen going up the forearm. Notice how the skin barely stretches? This is because it’s incapable of grabbing onto the tissue and creating physical transformation at the fascial layer site.
When you can get relative motion between two fascial planes, you start to break down scar tissue. Without any relative movement, however, it’s impossible to remove the adhesions built up in between the layers. It’s impossible to achieve self-myofascial release.
I’d strongly recommend starting a rolling practice if you haven’t already picked it up. I enjoy it before exercising as it stimulates my tissues, helps temporarily improve range of motion, and locks me into focus.
The evidence is clear that foam rolling can elicit some great, temporary benefits during the warm-up and recovery phases of exercise. Additionally, it can even provide pain relief due to brief neural effects.
Please know, however, that foam rolling isn’t magic. It cannot physically manipulate tissues to release any built-up fibrosis within the fascia.