You may have seen athletes and fitness enthusiasts rolling on a cylindrical colored piece of foam at sporting events, on TV, or even at your gym. It looks like something you would use to save someone from drowning in a pool (perhaps for a heavier person since those foam noodles are usually a little thinner). Arguably, this has become one of the most popular forms of 'self myofascial release.' Along with foam rollers, lacrosse balls and PVC pipes are other common tools used to take a swing at treating their own pain and dysfunction. Before I continue, I understand that everyone has their own philosophy as to the functionality of these self massage techniques. I am simply here to share the common purposes of foam rolling and how someone may or may not benefit from it, according to the literature and evidence that is out there.
MOST COMMON PURPOSES:
what is fascia?
Earlier I stated something about 'myofascial release' and you may be curious as to what that is. Fascia is a term used to describe the connective tissues of the body. You know, the slimy part of a raw chicken breast that you peel off before preparing it? Yeah, that! Fascia plays a role in supporting free movement of our muscles and bones. When this tissue becomes 'dysfunctional' it can restrict movement, decrease blood flow to the area and cause pain (5). These dysfunctions are oftentimes referred to as knots, adhesions and/or scar tissue. How this may happen is due to mal-alginment of tissue due to trauma, poor movement patterns and emotional distress (think about tension in your shoulders after a long day of sitting at work). When we 'release' this tissue, it creates a biomechanical change that improves the tissue mobility (6). So in short, foam rolling aims to reduce myofascial tightness.
There is evidence that shows improvement in short-term flexibility which can last up to 10 minutes (1), however, it can influence long-term flexibility when performed on a regular basis (2, 3). There is also an increase in range of motion when used for 3-5 sets of 2-30 second reps (4), however, further research is still needed to fully understand the implications.
One of the primary reasons (and the reason why I foam roll) is to speed up the recovery process of post-workout soreness! Yuck, who wants to stretch painfully sore muscles after a tough leg day? But you gotta admit, it feels pretty darn good afterwards. Research supports positive effects of foam rolling after strenuous training which is why this may be a valuable tool to tackle DOMS.
As the popularity of foam rolling has increased, there has also been higher demands on research to determine the true effects of this self-manual therapy technique. At this point, it can be used as a meaningful tool for short-lasting flexibility and reduction of muscle soreness when used properly.
1. JAY, K., SUNDSTRUP, E., SØNDERGAARD, S. D., BEHM, D., BRANDT, M., SÆRVOLL, C. A., & ANDERSEN, L. L. (2014). SPECIFIC AND CROSS OVER EFFECTS OF MASSAGE FOR MUSCLE SORENESS: RANDOMIZED CONTROLLED TRIAL. INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF SPORTS PHYSICAL THERAPY, 9(1), 82-91.
2. MOHR, A.R., LONG, B.C., & GOAD, C.L. (2014) EFFECT OF FOAM ROLLING AND STATIC STRETCHING ON PASSIVE HIP-FLEXION RANGE OF MOTION. JOURNAL OF SPORT REHABILITATION, 23(4), PP.296-299.
3. EBRAHIM, A. W., & ELGHANY, A. W. A. (2013). THE EFFECT OF FOAM ROLLER EXERCISE AND NANOPARTICLE IN SPEEDING OF HEALING OF SPORT INJURIES. JOURNAL OF AMERICAN SCIENCE, 6, 9.
4. BRADBURY, S.D.J., NOFTALL, J.C., SULLIVAN, K.M., BEHM, D.G.,POWER, K.E., AND BUTTON, D.C. (2015). ROLLER-MASSAGER APPLICATION TO THE QUADRICEPS AND KNEE-JOINT RANGE OF MOTION AND NEUROMUSCULAR EFFICIENCY DURING A LUNGE. JOURNAL OF ATHLETIC TRAINING, 50(2), PP.133-140.
5. FINDLEY, T., CHAUDHRY, H., STECCO, A., & ROMAN, M. (2012). FASCIA RESEARCH–A NARRATIVE REVIEW. JOURNAL OF BODYWORK AND MOVEMENT THERAPIES, 16(1), 67-7.
6. BARNES, M. F. (1997). THE BASIC SCIENCE OF MYOFASCIAL RELEASE. JOURNAL OF BODYWORK AND MOVEMENT THERAPIES, 1(4), 231-238.