Foam rolling: the underpinning science and how it aids recovery

Foam rolling is a dynamic technique that uses your body’s natural response to pressure to help relieve muscle tightness, soreness and inflammation.

The act of foam rolling is a self-myofascial release (SMR) technique and can easily be integrated into exercise programmes. As well as offering benefits for fatigue and muscle soreness with exercise, the act of rolling muscles can be a form of active recovery.

What is myofascial release?

Myofascia is the scaffolding for muscle. Every muscle (myo) of the body is contained and separated by a system of connective tissue (fascia). Therefore, it keeps muscles in place but separates them and allows muscles to freely move when contracting and relaxing.

What is the science behind foam rolling?

The process of rolling the muscle aims to apply an external sustained pressure on the skin at the site of tightness or pain. Subsequently, this pressure creates a mechanical and neurological response within the muscle. Therefore, inducing a ‘freeing’ affect to ‘dysfunctional’ fascia.
  • Relieve muscle pain
Similarly to massage, foam rolling can have a therapeutic effect for delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) induced by intense exercise. For example, research by Pearcey et al. (2015) has reported that foam rolling can reduce DOMS and limit the knock-on effects in performance. The most common mechanisms reported to underpin this enhanced recovery are enhanced blood lactate removal, enhanced muscle tissue healing, and decreased inflammation - all due to increased muscular blood flow.

Increased blood flow relieves muscle pain

  • Reduce inflammation
Inflammation occurs in response to exercise as a result of the damage to muscle cells. When something damages your cells, your body releases chemicals that trigger a response from your immune system. Recent research by Pablos et al. (2020) showed that applying foam rolling after high intensity exercise has benefits such as an increase in anti-inflammatory proteins and a reduction of pro-inflammatory proteins.

Reduced inflammation aids recovery

  • Increase range of motion
Foam rolling is used by practitioners and their clients to increase range of motion (ROM) in a joint. Research by MacDonald et al. (2013) reports that foam rolling on the quadriceps muscles increases ROM in the knee. The mechanism underpinning this may be through alterations in the myofascia. Such as - increased elasticity and gel-like properties. Consequently, we get enhanced myofascial mobility in the joint.

Increased ROM is important for flexibility

Foam rolling for enhancing performance and recovery

Other benefits reported from research following myofascial release techniques are to reduce fatigue during an exercise bout. As a result, you may be able to work at a higher intensity or extend your workout. The study by Pablos et al. also found that applying rolling massage to the damaged muscle following high intensity exercise can aid recovery. Intense exercise causes structural damage to the muscle. However, foam rolling reduced the damage to cells in the muscle fibres.

In summary...

Foam rolling can ease tension in the muscle. The aim is to relieve muscle pain. However, the research is not entirely conclusive. Take caution when applying this technique, in particular if you have underlying musculoskeletal or cardiovascular issues.

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