Foam Rolling - What is All The Fuss?
Most of you will have heard of it, many of you will have seen others doing it at some point, and some of you will already do it or have done it before. But what does it involve? How do you do it? What is its purpose and more importantly what are the benefits?
This blog post will hopefully give you some insight into the science behind foam rolling, so that you can not only have a better idea about why it is important, but also improve the way you utilise it for performance, recovery or just general health.
What is foam rolling?
Foam rolling is just one form of an activity scientifically known as ‘self-myofascial release’ (SMR), and it is a popular preparation/recovery method now commonplace in health clubs, studios and elite sports teams up and down the country. It can be used as a pre-hab activity (injury prevention for athletes), a valuable injury rehab technique, and more generally can be used as part of a warm up and/or cool down. SMR is basically just a cheaper, more convenient version of a sports massage (just as painful unfortunately!) applied to yourself.
What does it do?
The purpose of foam rolling is to improve preparedness for exercise, speed up recovery, and enhance your mobility by rapidly increasing range of motion (ROM) in your joints. A study by Healey et al. (2014) found pre-exercise foam rolling to significantly reduce post-workout fatigue in 26 male and female college athletes. Another study by MacDonald et al. (2014) found foam rolling to substantially reduce muscle soreness and increase range of motion (ROM), as well as muscle activation - these are huge benefits not only for the gym enthusiast or keen athlete, but also for your average Joe or Josephine.
Improving Muscle Function
You may be asking yourself how all these fitness benefits are possible just by rolling around on a foam cylinder for 10-20 minutes a day?
Well, when you foam roll (or use a massage ball, tennis ball, golf ball, hand held roller etc.) you are trying to improve the overall quality and function of your muscle tissue, enhancing its ability to both relax and contract voluntarily. Think of it like kneading bread or play dough! The more malleable your muscle tissue is, the greater its ability to contract and recruit proportionately in all areas. Exercise put simply is a series of voluntary muscle contractions - shortening-lengthening cycles - and after each bout of exercise you will form areas of tight muscle fibres (from this repeated shortening) in the specific areas you have relied upon most for your particular movements.
Subsequently, without proper ‘release’ through rolling or stretching, this region of excessively tight muscle tissue will enter a state of chronic contraction (also known as being hypertonic) - think of this muscle as engine you cannot switch off! Conversely you will also have other regions of muscle which lay dormant and inactive during movements, depending on the quality of your technique, this muscle region becomes hypotonic - an inactive engine you are struggling to switch on.
By foam rolling these hypertonic, specifically tight areas (and trust me, when you roll over them a few times you will know exactly where they are!) you are basically short-circuiting the muscle to switch it off and give it relief from being constantly active, helping to improve your freedom and quality of movement by giving it the ability to lengthen as well as contract!
Is foam rolling for me?
A good way to assess whether foam rolling can be of use for you, would be to gauge your current ability in some fundamental human movements:
SQUAT: A well-functioning body is designed to be able to squat - and squat deep! Film yourself squat side-on, and observe whether you can bring your hips below the level of your knees, keeping your feet flat on the floor, toes pointing straight forwards, without leaning your torso forwards, or rounding your spine. Doing this perfectly is very difficult for a lot of people, and if you are struggling to achieve a deep squat without adjusting your posture, foam rolling can certainly help you here.
WALL SLIDE: This movement brilliantly reveals the current state of your upper body function. Leaning against a wall, with feet slightly away, push your lower, middle and upper back flat into the wall, with your arms in a W position. Begin sliding your arms up the wall above your head, retaining as many contact points with the wall as you can physically maintain! If you are struggling to keep your lower back, elbows, forearms or hands in contact with the wall, your posture is certainly compromised and foam rolling can help correct this.
Where should I target and how?
Glutes, Quadriceps, Iliotibial band (ITB), Hamstrings, Calves, Adductors, Upper back, Lower Back
Take away tension. Relax the limb. When foam rolling, whichever muscle group you decide to roll, it needs to be in a relaxed state while you roll over it, in order for you to release the tension and tightness stored in the muscle.
Pressure wave. This technique involves finding the area of greatest tension - this can reveal itself as a burning releasing sensation as you roll over the ‘trigger point’. Once you have identified this spot, you need to begin from the point at which you first feel the tension and apply as much pressure as you can tolerate beyond your comfort zone. Roll this pressure through the tight spot, all the way to the point at which you stop feeling it. Continue repeating this pressure wave, top to bottom then bottom to top at least 10 times, for around a minute or two, before moving on to another trigger point.
Tack and floss. This technique can be carried out by applying pressure to the tight spot as previously described, however instead of rolling, you need to take the muscle through its active range of motion. For example, if flossing the quadricep, you would lay on your front on the foam roller, leaning into one side in particular, and then taking your knee through repeated flexion and extension movements.
A good way to test the effects of your foam rolling is to perform a movement before and after - this may be something like a deep squat, or a particular stretch you have been feeling tight on - and assess your improvements in ROM.
If you would like to try it out or to find out more please come to the gym desk one of the personal trainers will be happy to help.
Written by Gabriel Jones.