What is Foam Rolling?

Alternatively: “Why is everyone at my gym rolling on the floor on rubbery tubes?”

It seems more and more that everyone at a gym is grimacing in pain as they roll on tubes looking like medieval torture devices.  See:

Believe it or not these people aren’t masochists enjoying a nice post-workout torture session, in fact many of them are enduring this quick painful session to battle chronic pain causing afflictions.   This action is called foam rolling, or more specifically: self myofascial release.  In The basic science of Myofasicial Release the core concepts of myofascial release are simply laid out, it is the attempt to cause morphological changes in the connective fascia surrounding muscle tissue.  In other words we are using a tool (commonly a foam roller) in an attempt to cause a release in the tension of the fascia surrounding our muscle tissue, literally changing the shape of the connective tissue.  There are many supposed benefits to foam rolling regularly from improved circulation to better posture; the benefits I can attest to personally (and will focus on for the remainder of this article) are improved mobility and reduced pain.

What is Fascia?

Imagine each major muscle group in your body is kept in it’s proper shape by a thin, spiderweb-like substance with an amazingly impressive tensile strength, that’s muscular fascia.  In short, fascia is thin connective tissue that surrounds large groups of tissue helping them retain shape, function and position.  Now imagine what would happen if that web-like structure became deformed…  It’s easy to think of the problems that can arise if the fascia isn’t properly functioning: muscles can’t properly contract, pain arises every time you make a specific movement or worse yet, you can’t even make specific movements happen. The common problems come from fascia tightening in response to trauma: whether that trauma is a specific incident (such as a car accident) or the more mundane microtrauma experienced during exercise. The term “Microtrauma” may make it seem as though there is not much damage occurring, and in fact there really isn’t.  However these microtrauma are reoccurring with each session of vigorous exercise and without some method to undo the damage the trauma becomes cumulative and results in overly tight and restrictive connective tissue.

Imagine a football player that can bench press a train but can’t lift his arm above his head.  This individual has immense power in his upper body and is by no means in bad shape, so why can’t he lift his arm above his head? The football player is the victim of limited mobility due to overly constrictive connective tissue. In order to regain the full range of motion necessary to perform everyday functions (and perform them without pain) it is important we have a set of tools that can restore pliability to restrictive connective tissue.  Self myo-fascial release is a practice that can maintain healthy muscle fascia thereby increasing our total range of motion.

How do I facilitate “Myo-fascial Release”

According to Barnes:

Sustained pressure is applied into the restricted tissue barrier; after 90-120 seconds the tissue will undergo histological length changes allow the first release to be felt.

Simply put we are focusing on a single problem area at a time and once we can find that “sweet spot” we hold it for 90-120 seconds, as this is the amount of time it takes to create changes in soft tissues.  The basic principle behind it seems simple enough but if you have attempted it, you know it’s not really that simple.  Stimulating myo-fascial release with a foam roller,lacrosse ball or a tiger tail can be quite uncomfortable and borderline painful.  It is important that you do not dive head first into it as you may experience some extreme discomfort and be put off by the idea of foam rolling in the future.  Start slow and ease into the pressure.  Remember: we are trying to start a new habit to combat overly restrictive muscle fascia, not solve the problem in a single session.

Learning by Emulation

Here is a small collection of videos I found to be quite informative when learning to foam roll.

20 Minute Foam Rolling Program (Great for Beginners)

Mobility WOD:  Stiffness and Athlete Mobility

Mobility WOD: Lat Hell

In Conclusion

Self-Myofascial release via foam roller, lacrosse ball or tiger tail is an invaluable practice to couple with any exercise regime.  During many types of vigorous exercise we are exposing our soft tissues to repetitive trauma without effectively treating that trauma until we notice we can’ t move our shoulders or worse have caused a major injury.  It doesn’t take long to reap the benefits from self-myofascial release, I aim to get at least an hour of foam rolling time total each week.  Theoretically that should be 10 minutes/day but I’m more likely to hit all of my problem spots in a few longer sessions each week.