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FOAM ROLLING - What does it actually do?

Measuring anywhere from 18 to 36 inches in length, these bad boys can cause some pretty significant pain to the men and women that try to tackle them. You can normally find their users gyrating around the floor, red faced, muttering some form of obscenity.

Of course I’m talking about the FOAM ROLLER which is used as a form of SELF MYOFASCIAL RELEASE (SMR)

Here are some proposed benefits of SMR:

Now these benefits are great, but does foam rolling actually do any of these things?!

How does Foam Rolling Work?

SMR is basically a fancy way of saying giving yourself a massage. Now you don’t necessarily need a foam roller to get the benefits of SMR, you could use a tennis ball, lacrosse ball or my personal favourite the golf ball.

Myo meaning muscle and fascial meaning fascia (a tough layer of connective tissue). Imagine your weekly shop at Tesco, when you get to the checkout you load all of your shopping into your bag and head home. If we imagine that all our shopping items are our organs, bones, muscles etc, then fascia is actually the bag that wraps around and keeps everything together.

Fascia actually has a bunch of really interesting and unique properties that heavily influence our body’s ability to move and function, and in recent years there are a lot of people getting very excited about its potential functions. One such function is the idea of it being tensile (have the ability to contract) and transmit forces during exercise.

To be brutally honest we don’t exactly know how SMR works, but we do understand that it works through some form of self massage (a gross oversimplification).

So what happens to soft tissue during a massage?

If you’d asked me 4 years ago I would have told you that I could mechanically manipulate ‘tight ‘ soft tissues through manual therapy. We now know that we cannot physically manipulate tissues but what we can do is affect the limbic system (Brain, nerves, spinal cord etc), when the brain perceives danger or the chance of injury it sends these threatening messages to sensory receptors in the muscles (Golgi tendon organs & muscle spindles) causing them to increase tone (get tight) and lose mobility, but through manual therapy these ‘sensory’ receptors can be calmed down and the threatening messages can be stopped, restoring tissue tone and mobility.

Foam rolling to decrease DOMS & Pain levels

Probably its most popular use, decreasing pain levels and mitigating the effects of DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) has been heavily researched in the literature. There is evidence showing that SMR reduces perceived soreness after activity and can increase a person’s pain threshold therefore mitigating the effect of DOMS for up to 48 hours after exercise.

KEY POINT – SMR can be effective at helping athletes as a recovery tool, especially during busy/heavy training periods.

Foam rolling to increase flexibility and to increase muscular performance

In the past, prolonged static stretching has pretty much been the go-to technique to increase flexibility or warm up before training/a work out, but now SMR is becoming an increasingly popular tool to warm up or to gain flexibility.

Evidence shows that SMR can improve flexibility in the short term (for up to 10 mins after) and can also create long-term flexibility changes with consistent repeated SMR; improvements shown in under 2 weeks with a regiment of 5 sets of 20 seconds performed daily, interestingly there was shown to be no greater benefit in rolling for 60 seconds than for 20. This indicates that we can start making longer-term changes to flexibility in less than two minutes (far quicker than static stretching protocols).

In terms of muscular performance recent studies have shown that static stretching reduces; force production, power output, running speed, reaction time, strength endurance where as SMR has not been shown to negatively effect any of these parameters.

KEY POINT - SMR and static stretching can both improve flexibility (both short and long term), the difference being that SMR can improve flexibility in the short term without effecting performance whereas static stretching reduces muscular performance.


Overall, the positives certainly seem to outweigh the negatives and SMR has a good level of research that shows it certainly can help pretty much anyone, be it the average gym monkey all the way up to professional athletes.




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