So, you're into foam rolling! Heck yeah! But, as an intellectually curious being, you want to know more about what happens to your body when you go through your routine. How does rolling around on a piece of foam actually make you better? We appreciate the inquisitive mind, so let's dive right in...
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU FOAM ROLL?
YOU HAVE QUESTIONS, WE HAVE ANSWERS
WHAT'S GOING ON WITH THESE MUSCLE "KNOTS" THAT I GET?
We all have that one spot. It feels like a small boulder has become permanently lodged inside your body and is sore to the touch . It could be in your low back, between you shoulder blades, your groin, or maybe your calf muscle. Call it a knot. Call it an adhesion or a trigger point. Call it Pete if you want! You just want it gone. But to do that, it helps know what causes it.
Well, in healthy muscle tissue, your muscle fibers remain in a relaxed or semi-relaxed state until called upon to perform a task. When you need to lift that large Amazon package or sprint to your departure gate, nervous impulses are sent from your brain to your muscles. These impulses cause the release of various chemicals that flood your muscle and make the fibers contract. When the contraction is no longer needed, the chemicals are released and the muscle goes back to a state of semi-relaxation, just waiting to be called upon again.
The problem arises when muscles reach a point of fatigue. When this happens, the chemicals that caused your muscles to contract in the first place, essentially become trapped. Now, small bundles of muscles cells can no longer relax; forcing a permanent localized semi-contracted state - a "knot", if you will. These locked fibers reduce blood flow and oxygen to the muscle, restricting range of motion, reducing strength, and ultimately causing pain.
This fatigue can be caused by all sorts of reasons: overuse and repetitive stress from movements in a job or exercise activity, sitting for prolonged periods of time (that means you office worker and frequent flyer), lifting heavy loads, or even sleeping in a funky position. And this fatigue can be exacerbated by factors like long work hours, sleep deprivation, not drinking enough water, and even emotional stress.
WELL THAT SOUNDS AWFUL. HOW DOES FOAM ROLLING FIX ME?
One word: compression. When you apply your bodyweight to your foam roller, the muscles are compressed. The stimulation from the compression sends signals to your brain to "down regulate" the system. The brain then sends a signal back to the knotty (should we say "naughty") muscle fibers and effectively tells them to chill out. By doing this the trapped chemicals are released and the muscle can relax.
"Get out of here you pesky knot!"
When your muscle fibers relax (become unstuck), blood and oxygen flow increases and improves muscle function.
This is why foam rolling before and after a workout helps you to perform better and recover faster (see research here). It's also why regular, preventative foam rolling will have you moving and feeling better on a daily basis.
DID YOU KNOW?
Applying pressure to muscles to improve their function has been around since it was practiced by the Indus Valley Civilization 5000 years ago.
- Follow up your foam rolling session by doing some active movements and stretching of the muscles you just addressed. This will help the muscle to regain its appropriate range of motion and structural integrity.
- Particularly pesky knots may need a stronger stimulus. This means firmer compression and multiple sessions over the affected area.
DOES FOAM ROLLING MAKE ME MORE FLEXIBLE?
This is one of the more controversial topics when it comes to the benefits of foam rolling, as much of the research demonstrating this effect has yielded mixed results. This is in part due to the inconsistent application of foam rollers, and the different body parts assessed in the studies. So we're going to go out on a limb and say, "yes...and no".
If you think that a foam roller is physically changing the structure or elongating your muscle, you're probably wrong. Research shows that to break down scar tissue or to manipulate fascia, an extremely high force is needed. Rather, what foam rolling is great at is making sure your muscles are in a healthy operating state (see above).
As compression is applied during your rolling session, the targeted area relaxes and muscular tissue regains its appropriate range of motion and structural integrity. Rather than giving you super-human flexibility, foam rolling essentially takes you back to your flexibility baseline. When foam rolling (or any form of self-myofascial release, "SMFR," like using a massage stick or getting a sports massage) is immediately paired with appropriate mobility drills and strengthening exercises, the combination can yield flexibility benefits. So make sure you're combining some stretching on your roller as well!
7 KEY ROLLER-BASED STRETCHES
There are plenty of other benefits that foam rolling provides (including some you probably haven't considered). If you're someone who wants to take their foam rolling routine to the next level (or just want to go further down the foam rolling rabbit hole), check out our guide here.
WHAT ARE THESE "TOXINS" THAT FOAM ROLLING FLUSHES OUT?
Ah yes, another misnomer that we want to address. When foam rolling increases blood flow, it increases the transfer rate of all fluids circulating through the muscles targeted by foam rolling. The "toxins" that are flushed through the muscles are actually just metabolic waste produced from the muscles themselves (not anything foreign to your musculoskeletal system). Lactic acid (a muscle byproduct from strenuous exercise) and the aforementioned trapped calcium ions (the chemicals that tell your muscle fibers to contract) are two examples of these "toxins" that foam rolling helps to remove from your muscle fibers.
The compression and flushing action of a foam roller then reinforces this restorative process in a second way. It increases blood flow and circulation into the area you're rolling over (the reason your muscles feel warmer after a good roll out). This increased circulation helps to bring water and new oxygen into your muscles to help them on their merry way.
And as a cherry on top, that "hurts so good" feeling you get from foam rolling aids in the release of the regenerative neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, and oxytocin. It's the same effect as getting a deep-tissue massage. You'll probably have noticed this boost of friendly chemicals if you already crave some foam rolling at the end of a long day.
Try our "De-Stress" routine and see what you think.
DE-STRESS WITH YOUR ROLLER
We're sure you may still have more questions about foam rolling, so we want to be here as a resource for you. Feel free to reach out and we'll do our best to promptly get back to you with the answers you seek. And, if you're feeling a little nerdy (and we mean that in the most endearing way possible), we've compiled some great scientific articles about foam rolling that we've used to further our knowledge.
Because the more you know about foam rolling, the more effective your daily foam rolling routine will become. And, in a beneficial cycle, your health and wellbeing improvements can have you seeking and implementing more knowledge. This is part of what living a Brazyn Life entails.