It is commonplace to see people in the gym wincing in pain as they use a foam roller. Many people use this device of torture, but do many understand the whats, whys and hows of these things?
When you are out there on that foam roller, what you are actually doing is something called self-myofascial release, or SMR for short. So what does this actually mean? Well, if we first of all look at the term fascia, this is basically a layer of connective tissue that we have surrounding the muscles (that ’s where the ‘myo ’ bit comes in). Its main aim is to give a layer of support and protection to the muscles and the body in general and covers most of the body. The traditional view regarding this tissue is that it is a passive tissue that transmits forces and tension around the body and holds us together. So basically what we are working with is the self-release of tension in the connective tissue.
Due to the role of the fascia in the transmission of force, it often develops areas that are painful to the touch, developing knots. These points are referred to as trigger points and are the areas that we are looking for with that foam roller. These trigger points can occur in fascia, muscle, musculotendinous junctions, fat pads, etc. The compromising of the tissue structure caused by these trigger points have been discussed as a reason for increased injury rates and reductions in performance. With SMR we are looking to try and eliminate these trigger points and restore tissue integrity and normal function.
When you use a foam roller, is it supposed to hurt? Well, hurt is probably the wrong word. What you should experience is discomfort rather than full-on pain. The benefit of this self-inflicted method of release, as opposed to a sports massage, is that you can precisely control the pressure and location of force placed upon the muscle. This allows for a much more effective release of trigger points and accelerated improvements in function. This is achieved by the pressure being applied to the muscles, helping to break up the adhesions formed between layers of muscle and aiding the return of normal blood flow.
To use a foam roller effectively, you should apply pressure to a particular muscle using your body weight. You should roll at a slow pace until you find a point of discomfort; this point should be held for between 10 and 30 seconds. During this time, you should try and relax as much as possible, and you should feel the tightness of the trigger point ease.
After this, the muscles may feel a bit sore the next day, and you should experience a looser, more comfortable feeling. If you would like to learn more about foam rolling, have a look at the Advanced Stretching course available via FIE.
Tom Godwin (@TomForesight) has been involved in the fitness industry for over 18 years and has been involved with personal training, business/career development and corrective exercise. He is currently involved in personal trainer education as a tutor, assessor and course developer for Fitness Industry Education.