If you’ve been in a gym recently, then you will no doubt have noticed the relatively new trend of foam rolling. This is basically the process of using a ‘foam roller’ (no kidding!) in order to smooth out muscle tissue and other ‘soft tissue’ – which includes things like tendons and ligaments. This in turn is in order to reduce discomfort, prevent injury and improve performance.
If you engage in any kind of athletic training then there’s a good chance that this could be useful for you as a way to reduce injuries and improve your progress – but there’s also a good chance that you may have been doing it wrong in the past. Read on then, and let’s take an in-depth look at what foam rolling really is and how to get the best results from it.
What Is Foam Rolling?
Foam rolling is also known as ‘self-myofascial release’ and can also be performed with a tennis ball. Essentially it involves rolling some firm kind of ball or cylinder beneath your muscles and other soft tissue in order to place firm pressure on the muscles in a manner similar to a sports massage. This can then in turn help to release muscle tightness and ‘trigger points’ or ‘knots’ in order to help improve physical performance.
While training in any kind of sport or exercise, you will be placing your muscles under a lot of strain and creating lots of tiny tears. It’s only by healing these small microtears that your muscles then grow and increase in strength. At the same time, repeating this process and subjecting your muscles to excessive stress can also lead to other issues such as trigger points and tight muscles.
What Are Knots?
If ever you’ve received a massage then you will probably be familiar with the idea of getting ‘knots’ in your muscles. That said though, you may not have known what those knots actually are, what causes them or how you get rid of them.
The technical term for these knots is ‘myofascial trigger points’ or ‘TrP’. These are painful nodes in your muscles which create referred pain when you press them – in other words they cause you to hurt elsewhere in your body and may even cause headaches.
There are several theories as to what actually causes knots, but generally it’s agreed that it’s to do with minor damage to the muscle fibres. Normally nerves signal the muscles to move through structures known as ‘motor end plates’. These ‘end plates’ receive electrical signals and then release a chemical message in the form of calcium among others. When the muscle fibre gets damaged though, it can sometimes have difficulty removing that calcium and that small amount remaining leads to a continuous muscle contraction on a small scale.
This small contraction may not be large enough to generate visible movement, but it can nevertheless pull on the muscle creating a tight band of muscle surrounding a painful spot – known as a knot.
Chances are that you actually have quite a few knots, but don’t really notice them. One of the reasons you tend to feel so achy when you get a cold in fact, is that you are then feeling some of those knots again.
Fascial Scarring and Adhesion
Foam rolling and self-myofascial release doesn’t just target knots though; it also addresses a range of other potential issues and specifically fascial scarring and adhesion.
The fascia is a white, thin membrane found wrapping itself tightly around all the muscles in the body. Also known as ‘striffin’ and sometimes ‘silver skin’, its job is to bind structures together and hold them in place in a similar way that you might use cellophane to hold your sandwich together. Not only does the fascia surround the outsides of muscles, but it also surrounds bundles of fibres and blood vessels within specific muscles. The fascia itself is made up of small bundles of collagen fibres organised in a parallel manner. It helps to bind and hold muscles together, to ensure the correct alignment of soft tissues, to transmit force and load evenly through the muscle and more.
If the fascia exceeds its tensile capabilities, this can cause microtearing in the collagen fibres that make it up leading to fascial scarring and adhesion. Unlike microtears in the muscle fibre, microtears in the fascia are not what we want and can make movement difficult by reducing elasticity. The collagen fibres in the fascia have thus become ‘tangled’ and this makes it difficult for them to move, thus restricting your flexibility, potentially leading to injury and causing discomfort.
Fascial scarring and adhesion is actually a big issue seeing as the fascia is highly pain sensitive and yet incredibly difficult to image with technologies such as MRI. In other words, if you have ‘nonspecific lower back pain’ (the number one type of back pain) that has no obvious cause, there’s a good chance it might have something to do with your fascia.
Reasons to Roll
As you might have guessed, we haven’t gone into detail regarding fascial adhesions, fascial scarring and knots as a random tangent: they are relevant because that’s what we’re fixing when we use foam rolling and self-myofascial release. By applying firm pressure to knots you can release tension and relieve calcium. At the same time you will ease pain and tension throughout the body. Likewise you can also ‘break up’ the scar tissue found in the fascia and thus improve flexibility and movement even further.
As an added bonus, massaging muscles following a workout can help to stimulate the flow of blood to those regions. This then aids in the delivery of crucial nutrients, feeding the muscles and increasing recovery thus allowing more training frequency (1) and potentially improving strength gains. Foam rolling can even increase range of motion during workouts. (2)
How to Roll
The purpose of rolling then is to apply the same kind of pressure to stiff and sore areas of muscle and soft tissue that you might experience if you went for a sports massage. Get your foam roller, a tennis ball or even a golf ball and then place it on the ground, lie on it, then roll yourself around on it in order to work it into the sore spot. While some people use a golf ball, this can potentially damage the bone, so unless you know what you’re doing, you should stick with a foam roller or tennis ball.
It’s also important to make sure you are applying pressure in the right areas. If you apply pressure to a knot then you should find that it is tender to the touch/refers pain, and sometimes it will twitch when pressed. If you have a lump that shows none of these symptoms then it may just be a small harmless cyst. You also should avoid rolling on the bone which won’t do anything except make you sore.
The ultimate goal is to ‘tenderise’ your muscle the way you might normally tenderise meat before cooking it. Your muscle should be soft, supple and flexible when you’re not tensing it, and if yours is not, then you should use rolling to solve the problem.
As for how you know whether you’re doing it right, you should basically look out for feelings of pain in the muscles and the soft tissue surrounding them. One physiotherapist I spoke to described the correct sensation as ‘hurting good’. In other words, it should hurt, but in the way that feels almost as though you’re getting some kind of ‘release’ from your effort.
When to Roll
Rolling is best utilised after an intensive workout, especially one that involves lots of heavy lifting and leaves your muscles sore and tense in itself. You can use rolling later that evening in front of the television, and you should continue to the point where you feel somewhat achy from the effort but not in serious pain. After focussing on one area, drink lots of water and then give it 24-48 hours before focussing on that area again.
When you shouldn’t be foam rolling is for hours before a light and non-intensive cardio workout. As with many new health and fitness concepts, foam rolling is something that some people have taken to unnecessary extremes, resulting in hours of rolling before they even begin doing any exercise. If you are guilty of this, then you are simply wasting time at the gym and need to spend less time rolling and more exercising.
Used correctly though, foam rolling will not only relieve pain and tension, but will also increase muscle functionality, maximum strength and flexibility.