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Have you ever seen those long, funny-looking tubes in the corners of the gyms at the YMCA that look like pool noodles? You might see someone get on one and make a face that makes you decide, “I will never do that!”

Almost daily, our training staff explains to our members how those “noodles,” which are called “foam rollers,” can radically change their lives. While that may seem like an overstatement, we continue to see people’s levels of pain decrease, their muscle-tissue length restored, recovery time between workouts decreased and a significant increase in range of motion.

Over the last decade, myofascial compression technique, or “foam rolling,” has gained popularity as a means of self-induced neuromyofascial release.

By definition, foam rolling is a technique used to release tension and decrease activity of overactive neuromyofascial tissues in the body. Foam rolling can be compared to getting a massage (soft-tissue release).

While massage techniques have been around for years, the emergence of the foam roller is just now starting to make an appearance in the health-and-fitness industry. The practice shows up in fitness facilities, group exercise, team sports and even on popular TV talk shows and paid infomercials.

It begs the questions, “Is it hype? Just a trend? Or is it something that really can change the way your body feels?”

 

The Science

There are two primary reasons for why a person should use a foam roller. The first is to alleviate the side effects of active or latent trigger points, and the second is to influence the autonomic nervous system.

When prompted by any type of movement dysfunction, our bodies respond by creating trigger points. Trigger points are painful spots of tension in the body that often develop from the overuse and disuse of muscles. They can also develop from movement compensation due to injury and poor movement mechanics.

Foam rolling works to alleviate trigger-point sensitivity and reduce pain through a process called autogenic inhibition. This is a process whereby the muscle is inhibited by its own receptors.

The technique is believed to stimulate the Golgi tendon organ, a receptor in the muscle, through sustained pressure of specific intensity, amount and duration to produce an inhibitory response. The practical significance of this is that by holding pressure on a tender area of tissue (the trigger point) for a sustained period of time, trigger-point activity can be diminished. This will then allow for increased muscle lengthening and increased range of motion for joints.

The second reason to foam roll is to influence the autonomic nervous system.

Most discussions about foam rolling center on the receptors of the body that strongly impact muscular function, but the larger portion of receptors in the body referred to as interstitial receptors also respond to mechanical pressure and tension.

Interstitial receptors, which are often thought of merely as pain receptors, have autonomic functions that include changes in heart rate, blood pressure, respiration and tissue viscosity. Neuromechanically, these effects help to decrease the overall effect of stress (physical or emotional) on the human body and how it moves.

 

The Practice

To be effective, foam rolling through self-myofascial release needs to follow specific variables. It is performed by placing the roller on a region of the body or muscle group where trigger-point tenderness is felt.

The tender spot is held for 30 seconds in an area of maximum pain, or up to 90 seconds for those who can only tolerate holding the area with minimal pain.  

Common areas to apply self-myofascial release techniques are on the iliotibial band (the outside of the hip), adductors (the inner thigh), latissimus dorsi (under the armpit), piriformis (buttocks) and gastrocnemius (calf).

According to Cassidy Phillips, creator of Trigger Point Therapy, “by manipulating these six key areas, your body can achieve structural integrity, thus creating a platform for optimal performance and injury prevention.” 

Foam rolling is something that can be performed daily or more, as tolerated. Again, recommendations from Trigger Point Therapy suggest using a foam roller before exercise to “release, lengthen and strengthen,” and using a foam roller after exercise in order to “restore, relax and rebuild.”

As with any exercise, it is important to discuss your personal health and readiness with your doctor. And while using a foam roller is often going to bring great rewards, it is a technique that is often avoided because, honestly, it hurts. But, if you stick to it, you will feel better, recover more quickly, and see and feel the difference almost immediately.

One important note of caution: The practice should be used carefully, or avoided, by people with bleeding disorders, contagious skin conditions, osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis, congestive heart failure or other organ failures.

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