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FOAM ROLLERS – Mechanics & Mystery

Dr Mimi Zimwalt, MD

Rolling for Fascial Release & Muscle Recovery

Within the past 10 years, self-myofascial release has been supplementing and/or replacing traditional methods of massage by athletes and physically active people, in hopes of minimizing pain and maximizing performance, out in the playing field, inside recreational gyms among other places, including at home use. This increasingly popular mode of massaging muscles involves using one’s own bodyweight to put direct pressure on different body parts using a repetitive, back and forth pushing motion. Since the overlying fascial layer of muscles is extremely tough, hand-held devices with an undulating contour (roller massager) cannot exert enough forces to perform as well as the larger, smoother types. The purported foam rollers’ mechanism of action works by breaking up fascial adhesions and relieving muscle spasms (trigger points) to aid in releasing tight tissues and relieving soreness. This allows the treated muscle groups to be more mobile and recover better, prior to engaging in the next athletic event or workout session.


Before engaging in any type of sporting activity when the muscles are tight; and after sustaining a traumatic injury or participating in strenuous, intense athletic maneuvers, the ensuing muscle fibers can sustain micro tears and become inflamed. The affected soft tissues then lose even more elasticity and bind up injured parts, ultimately causing fibrous adhesions (scar tissue). The surrounding joints then become stiffened up from lack of pliability/flexibility, causing a decrease in range of motion (ROM). This in turns results in a decline of physical performance due to altered muscular mechanics, strength, endurance, and coordination. In order to release taut tissues, relieve pain and “heal up” more quickly, injured athletes end up seeking a masseuse/therapist-trainer to help them work out painful “knots”. Others try static stretching to lengthen connective tissues, but unfortunately can end up making the muscles weaker…


Once you decide to use #foamrolling, timing (when), duration (how long), intensity (how much), and frequency (how often), ALL of which are important factors to consider before usage. Common muscle groups amenable for treatment by foam rollers include calves, hamstrings, glutes, IT band, quads, and trunk/back. Immediately before and after each extremely vigorous sports practice, training, workout or exercise session, you can perform self-massage on tight muscles of the lower extremity by foam rolling 5-10 minutes for each muscle group. Be careful so not to roll too hard (excessive pressure) and/or too long though, since you can end up injuring the muscle fibers further. This will cause more pain, which will change muscular contraction/neural firing, and interfere with your next training/workout/competitive event. In addition, try not to wait too long in between rolling sessions (5-7 days at most); otherwise the beneficial effect on muscle soreness will wear off completely.


Research studies have shown that foam rolling is equivalent to dynamic stretching especially in football players, who are usually are naturally stiff to begin with, due to their bulky body habitus and enormous musculature. The other added benefit of using foam rollers on these athletes, is that no other performance parameters are affected. Power, speed, strength, and ROM are all still retained with foam rolling treatments before/after practice and/or game playing. Even though scientists have figured out how this method of self-massaging works, they’re still not quite sure exactly WHY it works. Researchers seem to think that it has something to do with a neural component. The “diffuse noxious inhibitory control theory” attempts to explain this phenomenon. Apparently, by physically exerting pressure on muscle fibers, the body sends a signal to the brain to decrease the perceived pain threshold, which is then relayed back to the muscles treated. The resulting sensation of discomfort becomes less uncomfortable, thus feels more tolerable to the athlete, which may enhance performance in the long run. This finding is duplicated in any of the muscles involved, regardless of degree of soreness.


In summary, foam rolling as an alternative to masseuse therapists to help with increasing #ROM before and decreasing soreness after workouts, is a more affordable way to help muscle groups relax and recover between successive athletic/exercise events. This self-massaging method is better than static and equivalent to dynamic stretching, without the disadvantage of weakening muscles or negatively affecting sports performance. Just make sure to do it consistently but not too vigorously, otherwise you’ll be sorer. This way you can physically prepare and/or recover with less pain, more ROM, and be better prepped for your next training session and/or athletic competition!

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