If I were to sum up why everyone should use a foam roller in one sentence it would look something like this:
"A foam roller is a convenient and inexpensive tool to help maintain healthy muscle tissue and increase mobility."
Done. Perhaps I shouldn't have started with this (note to self; must improve blogging skills). But the truth is, the actual reason why foam rolling works is still debated and the physical act of rolling itself should be understood before practiced to fully reap the benefits it can offer - of which there are many. So read on for a brief but crucial insight into the fundamentals of foam rolling.
What are the benefits?
We all know that a good massage therapist can help alleviate muscular tension and release stubborn knots through physical manipulation of the tissue. Well, a foam roller uses a similar principle but instead of the pressure being applied by a therapist it's your own body weight that does the job. It's simple cylindrical design allows for a smooth back and forth motion along the intended muscle and your positioning on the roller is determined by which area you're targeting.
During these long strokes the flow of blood and lymph to the muscle increases, bringing with them a healthy supply of oxygen and nutrients. This enriched blood flow allows the muscles to become more pliable and in turn increase our range of movement. For example, if I were to use a roller to lengthen my pec minor (a small muscle in the chest connecting to the front of the shoulder blade) it should consequently increase my ability to raise my arm overhead without being impeded, thus decreasing my risk of injury when I play tennis. Wonderfully simple therapy, right? In theory yes but the shoulder complex is just that - complex, so there may well be other limitations involved. But take on board this cause and effect principle of rolling because it can be applied to a myriad of other conditions.
After exercise you may be familiar with that stiff, achy feeling in the muscles that creeps up on you after a day or two post workout. This is referred to as DOMS (Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness). The soreness you then feel is actually minute tears in the muscle fibre followed by an inflammatory response and chemical reaction. This reaction can cause stiffness for up to a week unless treated with long strokes from a massage therapist or, yes you've guessed it, a foam roller. The increase in circulation helps to remove these waste products from the tissue allowing your muscles to move uninhibited again therefore decreasing your recovery time.
Throughout the day it's easy to become complacent and lose your postural awareness. Some muscles become shorter as we sit at our desks, whilst the opposing muscles will lengthen respectively. Using a foam roller will not only help to readjust the muscles lengths, improving your mobility but also, through specific positions, it's possible to directly oppose those daily dysfunctional conditions, therefore improving your posture.
How does it work?
The precise biological process behind foam rolling is, interestingly, still debated, but the direct effects cannot be challenged. Below are the two most visceral and intuitive explanations as to what's exactly going on in the body when we roll.
By releasing "knots" or "trigger points"
These knots (as they're most commonly referred to) are localised adhesions of discomfort built up in the muscle tissue. Clearly your muscles cannot physically tie themselves in knots but the reason they're called this is because that's exactly what they feel like - a buzzing, aching knot of muscle that not only causes localised pain but can also result in compensatory discomfort elsewhere.
Knots can form as a result of dehydration but are more commonly caused by sustained (or occasionally sudden) changes in length to the muscle. This means that any compromised exercise at the gym, stressed positions playing sport or more commonly, prolonged positions of poor posture at the office can result in adhesions. The most congested and complex parts of our musculature are where these knots will most commonly occur. It's these areas that are called trigger points.
By positioning yourself appropriately on the roller and applying pressure to the trigger point it's possible to remove these knots and regain localised function. Given that many of these trigger points are in confined areas of the body the use of smaller therapy equipment, such as a "therapy ball" or "duo-ball", are recommended for more accuracy.
By manipulating the fascia
Without getting too complicated, the anatomical process that takes place when rolling occurs not only in the muscle tissue mentioned above but also in the fascia that surrounds it. Think of fascia as a continuous network of fabric that envelopes not only the muscles in our body but our bones and organs too in one long unbroken structure. For it to function correctly it needs to be able to glide freely over the soft tissue that it surrounds. Again, when we undergo excessive positions of postural or mechanical stress the fascia can literally get stuck and adhere to itself or to other nearby tissue. By slowly rolling back and forth on a foam roller it's possible to release these fibrous adhesion restoring the function of this essential infrastructure.
There are over 600 muscles in the human body, each with their own individual roles and attachments. Think of them like a dynamic, complex and very crowded circuit board. Now, unlike a regular circuit board this one moves, contracts, lengthens and even grows from day to day. So it will come as no surprise to hear that this architectural wonder needs regular maintenance to function correctly and efficiently. Without it we can develop physical problems from the minor to the debilitating. Fortunately, there are plenty of therapies available to us to help tackle these problems, few of which are as pleasingly simple as foam rolling.
To find out exactly how to use a roller and when best to do it, check out my free step-by-step walkthrough at www.physique.co.uk