Foam Rolling: Hurts so Good?
Foam rollers have become an integral part of the decor at every gym around the world these days. Some people seem to have a something of a sadomasochistic relationship with their foam roller, where the relationship started with a plain old smooth foam roller and slowly but surely evolved into a thrill seeking venture, looking for toys with more bumps and nodules and 'sticky outy bits' in a bid to cause more pain and resulting pleasure, oh and more flexibility, recovery, less muscle pain etc.
Pretty hard core stuff for an introduction to a blog, but I guarantee that some of the readership is that person and have a copy of 50 Shades of Grey at the bedside table.
In this blog I will talk about if it works, why it might work and how might you go about using it. I will perhaps bust a myth or two in the process.
Aside to letting your inner sadomasochist out... I believe the reason for this yearning to feel pain when foam rolling and to get into those tight spots is to feel the perceived release afterwards. This is down largely to the type of language that surrounds foam rolling.
You may have heard terms like:
- Self Myofascial Release
- Trigger Point Therapy
- Breaking Up Scar Tissue
- Breaking Up Adhesions
- Removing Lactic Acid
- Loosen up the fascia
All of these terms came to be without any actual evidence of them occurring in any way as a result of foam rolling. With these terms, comes the widespread belief that we can actually influence our tissues enough to "break up adhesions" or "loosen up our muscle tissue", with this comes a visceral image of the need to apply enough pressure to really feel it.
"So are you telling me it doesn't do anything?"
No, it does something. It's just not what we have been led to believe. Chaudry et al. (2008) performed a study whereby they used a mathematical model to calculate how much force was needed to actually influence the fascia (the connective tissue network that surrounds all muscle).
"We found that, for plantar fascia(under the foot), a normal load of 852 kg and a tangential force of 424 kg are needed to produce even 1% compression and 1% shear. These forces are far beyond the physiologic range of manual therapy, as were the forces that were needed to produce compression and shear in fascia lata (outer upper thigh)."
Basically, you would need to be absolutely crushed by something like a fully grown cow in order to make any difference to the formation of your tissues.
This makes sense though, we are resilient human beings. Some people can squat the weight of a fully grown cow with a bar on their back. These people don't disintegrate. So if you are seeking to add more force, and more pain to your foam rolling ritual you can put that thought to one side because you can only take it so far. There are plenty of ways to hurt yourself.
"So what does foam rolling actually do?"
The exact mechanisms are not fully understood, but we have a pretty good idea and it all relates the the peripheral nervous system and how we experience input from the outside world. Our peripheral nervous system is our sensory organ and it governs the relationship that we experience with the outside world. It has lots of special receptors on every part of the body that takes in information like temperature, pain, muscle lengths during movement, muscle forces during movement and lots of things like this that interlink to tell the central nervous system whats going on.
When we have a perceived tight spot in our thigh for example and we do some squats and feel very conscious of it as we move, it can affect the way we perform the movement. If we go and roll it out for a while we have given it a controlled dose of pain beyond that which we feel when we squat and so when we return to squatting the feeling is dampened and the perception is that we have loosened up.
Most recent studies will point to this nuerophysiologic effect like Vigotsky et al 2015 and most notably by Biolsky et al 2009 "a mechanical force is necessary to initiate a chain of neurophysiological responses which produce the outcomes associated with MT."
"Additionally, variables such as placebo, expectation, and psychosocial factors may be pertinent in the mechanisms of MT"
Other areas where you might see reports of purported benefits due to Foam Rolling is in muscle and performance recovery. Something that is key to those studies is how they measure these markers of recovery. If you have been paying attention up to this point this part will be easy to grasp.
A study often pointed to in defense of the foam roller, used DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) as a marker of muscle recovery. What they did was push into people legs until the person said "ouch". They measured how long it took the person to say "ouch" before and after using the foam roller and after exercise that produced DOMS. (24 hrs after, 48 hours after and 72 hours after). After using the foam roller people tended to say "ouch" when more pressure was applied than before. Well, duhh... This just proves we have learned pain thresholds. I bet having a baby hurts more the first time round too in most cases.
The study design itself was rather wonky anyway and I won't labour you with the details.
With the smokescreen of myofascial nonsense cleared up, we can get in to how to use foam rolling to reap it's benefits.
Range of motion is what we care about.
Since these effects don't actually impact the tissues (as we discussed ad nauseum before) and in the act of foam rolling we do not move through a full range of motion, it is evident that the effects are not long lasting.
Studies have also shown this to occur with no negative impact on strength.
We also have to understand that we can get pretty much the same effects just by warming up with dynamic stretching.
This brings us to the crux of the issue. Why are we foam rolling? If it is to increase range of motion then we need to use it to its best advantage.
If we can do enough of a warm up, permitting us to hit our key positions in our resistance training, having a larger range of motion allows us to strengthen more muscle fibers, stretch under load and actually impact our tissues in a positive way.
We are talking good old fashioned squats, lunges, Romanian deadlifts, overhead presses, walking lunges etc.
Use the foam roller sparingly and use it to enhance other full range movement, not as a stand alone practice.