You may have heard of foam-rolling before as a technique for loosening your muscles or getting rid of sore spots. But how does it work, and why is it actually important? Without a proper understanding of how to foam-roll and why it is relevant to your health, it may be hard to have the motivation to do it regularly. Foam-rolling can feel tedious, boring, or even painful if not done properly, so it is important to understand the “why” and “how” behind this form of self-maintenance and rehabilitation.
“Foam-rolling can feel tedious, boring, or even painful if not done properly…”
Foam-rolling is a form of Self-Myofascial Release (SMR). SMR is a self-applied soft tissue technique that has become widely popularized in the fitness and athletic training industry. It can be done with different tools of varying sizes, shapes, and densities, and is fairly easy to do because it requires minimal equipment and space, and can be done without the assistance of another person.
“[Foam-rolling] is fairly easy to do because it requires minimal equipment and space, and can be done without the assistance of another person”
SMR facilitates relaxation of tight muscles via neural feedback and helps to break up thickened collagenous tissues that can inhibit muscle extensibility (the ability of a muscle to lengthen), joint mobility, and proper blood flow. When movement limitations and tissue health are not addressed, poor posture, improper movement, and toxicity buildup will be the result, leading to decreases in performance, pain, and ultimately injury.
“When movement limitations and tissue health are not addressed, poor posture, improper movement, and toxicity buildup will be the result, leading to decreases in performance, pain, and ultimately injury”
Tension in the body can occur from pathologies of two integrated parts of the human movement system: the myofascial and nervous systems. When trauma has occurred to a specific area of myofascia (an integrated unit of muscle and connective tissue), your body responds with inflammation of the area followed by the laying down of tough collagen fibers to protect the area from further injury. These areas of dense and tough tissue are pathologies of the myofascial system. When a muscle is weak relative to its functional opposite (e.g. bicep vs. tricep), the neural feedback to the central nervous system from each of the functional opposites will result in a tightening of the weak muscle along its weakest points. Also, due to repetitive movements, a muscle can tighten up because of the constant neural drive to the area. For example, leaning in to your phone screen constantly creates chronic tension in the flexors of the lower neck, and extensors of the upper neck, creating excessive forward head posture. Chronic muscle tightness due to neural feedback and neural drive are examples of pathologies of the nervous system. Areas of tension, whether they result from myofascial or nervous system pathologies, inhibit the ability of tissues to lengthen, which increases the risk of myofascial tears, pulls joints into compressed positions, and decreases movement efficiency. Therefore, it is important to perform regular maintenance on the body to prevent these symptoms from occurring.
There are several ways to increase muscle length, static stretching being a traditional approach. However, when static stretching, you usually do not address the source of your muscle tension very effectively because you are not working on the specific areas of trauma directly, or correcting the pathology of the nervous system. Imagine tying a knot in the middle of a rubber band and then trying to lengthen the rubber band by pulling it at the ends. A better approach would be to go directly to the site of the knot. These specific sites and nervous system pathologies are addressed in SMR.
“When static stretching, you usually do not address the source of your muscle tension very effectively…”
To properly foam roll, you must first scan the tight muscle for “trigger points”, or painful areas of tension. Start with light pressure and go slow to ensure any trigger points are not missed. Trigger points can vary in size and pain intensity, and you may be surprised how easy it is to skip over them. Once a tender area is found, pause on the site for at least 30 seconds and wait for the muscle to relax. Do not immediately roll up and down on the spot in an attempt to “massage it out”. Make sure to breathe and brace your core lightly by drawing your belly button inward. If you feel pain beyond a 6 on a 0 to 10-point pain scale (0 being no pain, 10 being excruciating), or if your breathing becomes shallow/irregular, then reduce the amount of pressure applied to the area.
Applying pressure for at least 30 seconds is essential. If the area of tension is a neural pathology, then receptors in the myofascia (Golgi tendon organs) need to be stimulated beyond a minimum threshold in order for the muscle to relax. These receptors are sensitive not only to changes in muscle tension, but also to the rates of change in tension. Additionally, it is important not to go beyond a 6 on a 10-point pain scale because the nervous system may register the pressure as an attack on the body, and will reduce breathing and tighten up the muscle in order to protect itself. Your own subjective assessment of pain is a good indicator as well as the quality of your breathing. Breathing helps the muscular system to relax, while holding your breath creates tension.
“Applying pressure for at least 30 seconds is essential”
Foam-rolling is an easy, convenient, and effective way to stay one step ahead of your injuries, however it is not a replacement for working with an experienced rehabilitative therapist when a pathology has already manifested. It is also not the only effective technique that can be done without assistance. Active stretching, banded-distraction, and compression flossing are other self-applied techniques that can help address soft tissue pathologies. If you are curious about learning how to apply foam rolling and other techniques for your injury prevention or permanence enhancement, ask your soft-tissue or movement practitioner for guidance.
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