I’m sure most of you have seen by now someone in a gym with a big piece of foam. You then watch as they begin to roll around on it with some questionable facial expressions, not sure whether they are in immense pain or deriving some kind of weird pleasure from it. To be honest, it could easily be both.
Foam rolling or self-myofascial release (SMR) has become a main staple of many peoples training which in my opinion is great. However having some basic understanding of what you are doing may help you grasp the importance of such maintenance or ‘prehab’ work.
Your body is made up of a system known as the kinetic chain – this system incorporates the soft tissue system (muscles, tendons, ligaments and fascia), neural system (nerves and CNS), and the articular system (joints). As the name implies the kinetic chain is a system which is responsible for producing movement and force, requiring all the elements of the system to work together to function correctly. If one element isn’t functioning efficiently, then other components must compensate, leading to tissue overload, fatigue, faulty movement patterns and potential injury.
Going into more depth, if we look at the cumulative injury cycle, along this cycle we can see how adhesions to the soft tissue can lead to altered neuromuscular control which in turn leads to poor movement and potential muscle imbalances.
What this means is that if we have a muscle that is tight due to adhesions, muscle length or neural hyperactivity it will affect the range of motion available at a particular joint. If the joint motion is altered then the neural feedback to the central nervous system (CNS) will be compromised resulting in poor movement patterns. These poor movement patterns will result in your body compensating through other joints or muscles leading to imbalances and potential injury. For example if you squat and have tight hamstrings, it could restrict the ROM and thus alter the joint motion of the knee and send the wrong signals to the CNS. Do this repetitively and it could result in the above issues.
This is where SMR comes in. Its primary focus is to alleviate such adhesions that can alter soft tissue structure also known as trigger points. It achieves this through a principle known as autogenic inhibition. The golgi tendon organ (GTO) is a mechanoreceptor which is sensitive to change in tension within a muscle/tendon group. Its main responsibility is to avoid high levels of tension within muscles through inhibiting the muscle spindles activity and causing the relevant muscles to relax (autogenic inhibition). With foam rolling the pressure you apply to the roller can simulate this high level of muscle tension causing the GTO to relax the muscles, allowing you to remove adhesions and improve ROM. So in a nutshell SMR can:
– Improve mobility and ROM
– Can help correct muscle imbalances
– Relieve muscle soreness and joint stress
– Reduce scar tissue and adhesions
– Decrease tone of over active muscles
– Improve quality of movement
So now we know how SMR works and how it can benefit us, let’s look at a few other tips to consider when carrying out SMR and a few basic techniques.
– Foam rolling can be used anytime, but as it has been shown to improve short term flexibility for over 10 mins it’s worthwhile using it in your warm-ups. This means you can build on your new found flexibility with strength and stability work.
– Try and avoid rolling directly onto injured areas. Think about the muscles up and down from the injured area and focus on those first.
– While we are trying to roll out adhesions and activate autogenic inhibition which can feel uncomfortable, we don’t want to be in excruciating pain. Rolling though high levels of pain can have the opposite effect and cause your muscles to tighten up even more.
– Roll slowly and smoothly for best results. Fascia is a thick, fibrous web of tissue and as such needs slow and deliberate pressure to release.
– If you find any really tender spots or trigger points then hold the roller in place on that spot and relax for 20-30 seconds. Ensure you take full deep breaths and avoid high levels of pain.
– Finally, ensure you adopt good posture when rolling. For example when rolling the quadriceps, try and ensure you maintain a neutral spine rather than allowing the hips to ‘sag’ towards the floor.
SMR can be a great tool for mobility, recovery and injury prevention. However to truly get the benefits, it needs to form a regular part of your training and done correctly. Once in a while just won’t cut it. See below for a video on some of the basic techniques.