Exercise causes small tears, or microtraumas, in muscle fibers and tissues. To alleviate inhibitory mechanisms or degraded tissue, the body has an inflammatory response that may lead to scar tissue build up in fascia over time. Yes, you read that correctly, your body’s own protective mechanisms may in fact degrade performance and cause muscular dysfunction (stiffness and pain), to an extent.
To counteract tissue abnormalities, foam rolling (FR) can be used. Foam rolling is a recovery and maintenance self-myofascial release (SMR) tool used to promote the process of soft-tissue healing and its movement. The popularity and convenience of FR has expanded in the fitness industry with merit.
Blood flow (BF) has been shown to have an essential role in tissue healing and increasing BF allows greater and quicker delivery of proteins, nutrients, and oxygen (Hotfiel et al., 2017). Since foam rolling directly targets connective tissue and increases the blood flow to that area, it follows that FR can be an effective treatment for many individuals to prevent or to regenerate from muscular fatigue (Fleckenstein et al., 2017). In fact, Pearcey et al. (2015) concluded that FR can reduce DOMS*** (delayed onset muscle soreness) and increase the pressure pain threshold of individuals.
I’ve listed some benefits of foam rolling below (*please note that the list is not all inclusive*):
Myofascial pliability (movement ability)
Increased blood flow to the rolled regions
Increased stretch tolerance (tissue lengthening at speed)
Reduced muscle soreness
Promote soft tissue extensibility (muscle fibers ‘glide’ over one another to allow smooth motion occurrence)
Reducing adhesions between layers of fascia
Lastly, FR is more effective than static and dynamic stretching in acutely increasing flexibility without hampering muscle strength, and may be recommended as part of a warm-up in healthy young adults (Hsuan et al., 2017). Additionally, the cross-over effect also exists in FR, where if you roll your left leg, your right leg will also sees benefits briefly (roughly 20-30 minutes) (Kelly & Beardsley, 2016).
When rolling, it is important to note that it’s the connective tissue being rolled and affected rather than the muscle itself. Additionally, time volumes greater than 90-seconds on each area being rolled are detrimental to the tissue’s ability to continually produce force (Rios Monteiro & Correa Neto, 2016). If you’re wondering ‘how long should I roll each spot on my body?’ The simplest way to look at the action of rolling is to roll 1 inch per second for about 30 seconds. As you become more advanced, the 1inch per second may become obsolete. However, the 30 seconds per muscle is typically an ideal time length unless a knot is found, in which case you may choose to rest the foam roller on that knot for an additional few seconds.
***DOMS is the pain and stiffness felt in muscles several hours to days after unaccustomed or strenuous exercise***
Fleckenstein, J., Wilke, J., Vogt, L., & Banzer, W. (2017). Preventive and regenerative foam rolling are equally effective in reducing fatigue-related impairments of muscle function following exercise. Journal Of Sports Science & Medicine, 16(4), 474-479.
Hotfiel, T., Swoboda, B., Krinner, S., Grim, C., Engelhardt, M., Uder, M., & Heiss, R. U. (2017). Acute effects of lateral thigh foam rolling on arterial tissue perfusion determined by spectral doppler and power doppler ultrasound. Journal Of Strength And Conditioning Research, 31(4).
Hsuan, S., Nai-Jen, C., Wen-Lan, W., Lan-Yuen, G., & I-Hua, C. (2017). Acute effects of foam rolling, static stretching, and dynamic stretching during warm-ups on muscular flexibility and strength in young adults. Journal Of Sport Rehabilitation, 26(6), 469-477.
Pearcey, G., Bradbury-Squires, D., Kawamoto, J., Drinkwater, E., Behm, D., & Button, D. (2015). Foam rolling for delayed-onset muscle soreness and recovery of dynamic performance measures. Journal Of Athletic Training, 50(1), 5-13.
Kelly, S., & Beardsley, C. (2016). Specific and cross-over effects of foam rolling on ankle dorsiflexion range of motion. International Journal Of Sports Physical Therapy, 11(4), 544-551.
Rios Monteiro, E., & Corrêa Neto, V. (2016). Effect of different foam rolling volumes on knee extension fatigue. International Journal Of Sports Physical Therapy, 11(7), 1076-1081.