Foam rollers and self-myofascial release
by Ethan Lahn, PT, DPT
What is it?
We’ve all seen the foam cylinder sitting in the corner of the gym or the physical therapy clinic. But, have you ever wondered what exactly it is? Why is it used? Foam rollers are a form of “self-myofascial release”. But wait! Don’t run in fear from these complicated and scientific words. Let’s break it down: Myofascial is a fancy term referring to connective tissue called fascia that covers your muscles and helps link structures like muscles and bones together. Think of it as a thin layer of gristle on a steak or the skin on your chicken breast. The “release” is the freeing of tension in that sheet of tissue. Many tools such as lacrosse balls, massage sticks, and various shapes and textures of foam rollers are used for self-myofascial release. Let’s dive in!
How does it work?
The mechanisms underlying how foam rollers and other self-myofascial techniques work are not well understood and are often debated among the scientific community. The most accepted and well supported explanation is that friction created by rolling across the muscles and fascia helps modulate how our bodies sense pain and discomfort. By decreasing the pain sensitivity of our nerves, our muscles relax and get longer thus allowing for increased motion. For individuals in pain, decreasing the pain signals from our muscles allows for more efficient movement and, in many cases, decreases in pain and improvements in function. Other proposed explanations include the mechanical release of adhesions from the friction of rolling across the muscle (1). By removing these adhesions from the connective tissue, motion improves and there are immediate improvements in function.
What do the experts say?
A recent study examining numerous research trials shows that foam rolling is effective for short-term improvements in flexibility. Additionally, research shows it decreases muscle soreness when used following exercise (2). But what about static stretching or dynamic warm-ups? As a reminder, static stretching is when we hold one stretch for a long period of time, whereas dynamic stretching we are taking our body through a series of active movements and joints move through their full range of motion. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning recently published an article that determined that foam rolling is not an appropriate alternative for static or dynamic stretching. They cite the different tissue loading conditions between stretching and foam rolling as serving different goals (3). When we look at performance metrics such as jumping, researchers from Costal Carolina University found that there was no difference between foam rolling and dynamic stretching after about 5 minutes. They suggest that foam rolling is better suited at times other than directly before performance testing, due to its ability to modulate pain (4). This research suggests that foam rolling may be better suited to decrease muscle soreness felt from a previous workout, a phenomenon referred to as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMs).
Should I use it?
YES. But… Ethan, you just said foam rolling isn’t effective and won’t make me jump higher and can’t replace my dynamic warm up! Then why should I use it? While this is true, the short-term benefits of unlocking short term flexibility allows you to get more out of things like dynamic stretching to increase your available motion. Let me reiterate. Foam rolling should not replace a good warm-up that gets your body primed to go for that run or lift. It should serve as another tool in your tool box to help you feel better after a hard workout or a more active recovery method during your day off of practice/working out. If you get to practice early, get on the foam roller and roll out those painful spots. This will help prime your body to get more out of your dynamic warm up. Think of it as a good back or leg massage that helps to work out all that soreness and tension in your muscles, thus preparing you to tackle your next workout!
So how do I use it?
Start by slowly rolling the targeted muscle until you find a tender or tight spot. Perform small amplitude oscillations over that spot while trying to relax that muscle, allowing the roller to sink deeper into the muscle (easier said than done, I know). Once you feel the tension release, move on to the next tight spot or muscle group. Spend between 30 seconds and 90 seconds on each muscle with specific attention to the sore areas.
- Be active – Don’t just sit on the foam roller, MOVE YOUR BODY!
- Slooooow and smooth, don’t rush through your routine. This allows your body to relax and let the foam roller massage deeper muscle tissues.
If you have questions about foam rolling or myofascial release give us a call at 866-588-0230.
- Barnes, MF. The basic science of myofascial release: Morphologic change in connective tissue. J Body Work Mov Ther 1: 231–238, 1997.
- Wiewelhove, Thimo et al. “A Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Foam Rolling on Performance and Recovery.” Frontiers in physiology vol. 10 376. 9 Apr. 201
- Siebert, Tobias1; Donath, Lars2; Borsdorf, Mischa1; Stutzig, Norman1 Effect of Static Stretching, Dynamic Stretching, and Myofascial Foam Rolling on Range of Motion During Hip Flexion, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: February 14, 2020
- Smith, Jason C et al. “Acute Effect of Foam Rolling and Dynamic Stretching on Flexibility and Jump Height.” Journal of strength and conditioning research vol. 32,8 (2018): 2209-2215.