Foam Rolling

Many of you who go to the gym or run or have sore muscles will have seen or have been told to use a foam roller OR to roll on a cricket or tennis ball.

We are going to look at what foam rolling is all about and look at whether there is any science behind foam rolling? Also we will take a look at common mistakes using these methods and how to use them effectively.

So, in case you are not aware of what foam rolling is, the practice involves applying your own body weight to a foam roller, massage ball or similar object and by using small repetitive back and forth movements over the muscle. People are using self help measures for three primary reasons
  1. To increase flexibility
  2. To reduce muscle soreness after exercise and improve recovery
  3. As a warm up to improve athletic performance
Unfortunately, there is a lack of scientific evidence to show that foam rolling helps particularly in the area of flexibility and reduced muscle soreness. There is some evidence that there is a short term gain in performance in athletes in the gym who performed squats shortly after using a foam roller on the hip muscles but whether this translated to a better performance with swimming or running is questionable.

So, where did the idea of foam rolling come from? Well it actually came from experiments on anaesthetised rats where very strong forces were applied to tissues by scientists on ligaments and muscle tissue and it was noted that over time the tissues remodelled. However, the forces applied were many times greater than those we use in foam rolling BUT this is where the idea that foam rolling realigns the muscle fibres or breaks down adhesions in the muscles comes from.

In fact, foam rolling is much more about changing the body's PERCEPTION of tightness and soreness. This is not to say this isn't valuable. If you change the body's perception of tightness and you FEEL as if you can move more freely, then over the course of time you change the pattern of movement and this is what creates the change.

So, if I could give you an analogy. If listening to music whilst running on the treadmill helps you increase your speed from 10 km per hour to 12 km per hour, you wouldn't argue that it was the music that changed the muscle fibres. What we would say is that the perception of difficulty running at speed has changed and overtime if you keep training whilst you listen to upbeat music you will become a faster runner.

So given the above, do I recommend foam rolling? Like the analogy, of music if you feel it helps you, then definitely go ahead and use it. If you find it makes you sore and irritates the tissues then don't!

Three common mistakes with foam rolling are
  1. To use it directly on a sore area. I would on work around the area first. There should be a sensation or perception that tissue soreness is easing and that rolling on that area is becoming less irritable. I personally DO NOT suggest using it for plantar fasciitis, for example, where all you are doing is mashing already irritable tissues.
  2. Don't always work on the sore area. For example, many runners suffer from tight Iliotibial Band syndrome. This is the fibrous band that runs down the side of the thigh. But quite often this soreness arises from the muscles running into the Iliotibial band mainly the gluteal and hip stabilisers and it is working into the gluteal and hip stabilisers that you will get better results.
  3. Don't spend too long on the foam roller. Remember the perception of change is short lived and so it is best to do two or three reps of short bursts of 20 to 30 seconds only repeated 3-5 times a week.
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