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Foam rolling, what is it and what are the benefits?

September 28th 2020

What is a foam roller?

Over the years it has become increasingly common to witness gym goers rolling around on a cylindrical piece of foam on the floor and you have probably wondered “what are they doing?”. This piece of equipment is a foam roller and it has a number of health benefits for both professional athletes and weekend warriors alike. It is predominantly used to perform myofascial release (self massage) and joint mobilisation techniques both to increase performance and aid recovery. But how does it work and when should you be doing it?

Myofascial release (self massage)

Throughout our bodies we have a vast network of dense connective tissue which connects muscles, bones, blood vessels and organs, this is called fascia. When working optimally the fascia and muscles glide over one and other without any restriction providing stability, support and fluid movement for the body. However there are a number of factors which can inhibit this process tightening up the fascia. Examples of this include daily stress from a sedentary lifestyle, poor posture sat at work or an old injury which hasn’t fully recovered. If the fascia tightens and becomes too stiff this can result in the development of trigger points in the tissue. Trigger points are painful areas of muscle where the fibres are in a constant state of contraction due to decreased blood flow and removal of waste products (lactic acid). Trigger points can also put pressure on nerves resulting in both localised and referral pain elsewhere in the body. Although it will often be uncomfortable or painful initially, foam rolling these trigger points will help to calm down the nervous system, stimulate oxygen flow to the affected tissue with nutrients for repair whilst allowing the lactic acid to be withdrawn helping to reduce the constant contraction of muscle fibres.

Improving joint range of motion and mobility

Foam rolling can be a used as an effective tool prior to performing your chosen sport or exercise. Dynamically rolling either your spine or limbs over a foam roller will help to stimulate blood flow to the soft tissues and increase lubrication in the joints thus increasing their mobility. The nervous system will also be able to function effectively with increased mobility in the spinal joints increasing proprioception (body awareness).  A great example of this is foam rolling the thoracic spine prior to playing golf. In order to produce an effective golf swing, a high level of thoracic rotation is required in order to produce the appropriate power and reduce over activity on the shoulders which can lead to injury.

Another example is performing an overhead squat. This demands a high level of mobility in the shoulder joints in order to keep the bar directly above the head.

Foam rolling the thoracic spine
Foam rolling Latissumus dorsi

If you would like to see a couple of demonstrations click here…

Reducing delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS)

As a result of exercise whether it be a gentle pilates or running an ultra marathon, repetitive stress is placed on the muscle tissue leading to micro trauma breaking down of the fibres. Even though this sounds detrimental it is actually an important process the body goes through to help muscle repair, grow stronger and adapt to the demands of future exercise. This process results in a build up of inflammation and lactic acid which can result in lasting pain anywhere between 12- 24 hours after exercise. This is what is known as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Foam rolling after exercise will help to stimulate blood flow to the affected tissues speeding up the healing process whilst also aiding the removal of toxins/ chemical waste products helping to reduce the severity of DOMS speeding up recovery.

Different types of foam roller

When purchasing a foam roller there are many different types to choose from. The most basic and ‘entry’ level rollers tend to be made out of a light, smooth foam and shouldn’t cause too much discomfort if used correctly. At the other end of the scale are the more rigid and spiked foam rollers. These are designed to get deep into the muscle tissue and can cause a higher level of discomfort so it is best to work your way up to this type.

Entry level
Advanced level

It is important to remember that foam rolling isn’t a substitute for a deep tissue sports massage or a chiropractic adjustment but it certainly can complement them increasing performance and aid recovery. Ask your sports therapist to guide you through the most effective ways to use a foam roller to keep you active and doing the activities you love.

Adam Harrison BSC

Sports Therapist