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The Foam Rolling Phenomenon

I like kicking.  I like squatting, and cycling.  In fact, I enjoy training... a lot.  And sometimes, my body likes to tell me it's feeling stiff, and so of course the natural and common sense thing to do is stretch tight muscles.  See my article The Routine of Stretching for thoughts on that specific topic... However, in more recent years, there's been fantastic mainstream exposure and explosion of foam rollers in the health and fitness industry, and banding of the term ‘myofascial release’.  Athletes of all sports have been using them for years, and I personally relied on my foam roller, tennis and lacrosse balls to get me through hard weeks of training for tournaments, allowing my body to recover from session to session.  I encourage foam roller use with most of my personal training clients.  However, it's important to fully understand when and why we are rolling.

Bit Of (Basic) Science, And The Fact Our Bodies Are Masters Of Efficiency And Compensation.

Over time, muscles and fascia* develop adhesions and tight spots, which diminish the ability of our muscles fibres to glide over each other. Applying foam rolling techniques to these dysfunctional myofascial tissues can help to break down adhesions and increase blood flow to these areas, which in turn promotes removal of inflammation-causing toxins. This is much the same as the approach of manual massage and other soft tissue techniques. 

(* I’ll talk about exactly what fascia is and does in a later article)

In a majority of cases, muscular tension, adhesions and trigger points develop because of inappropriate movement patterns that place stresses on our myofascial structures.  Your body is a master at compensating and adapts to everyday living, but not necessarily always for the better.  Because of these compensations and adaptation patterns, we feel the need to release tensions and make use of the foam roller.

A couple of common, often encountered, examples:

1.  A tight lower back, often the quadratus lumborum (QL), prevents excessive motion in the lumbar spine. If we release this, it could have serious consequences?

Foam rolling or massage may remove stiffness and provide muscular relief, but we may also have created the possibility of unwanted movement at the lumbar vertebrae, which can lead to injury during movements requiring lumbar spine and pelvic stabilisation – pretty much everything you do as a human being.

2. A common area of tightness is the ITB (Iliotibial Band) running down the lateral aspect of the thigh.  Classically, most of us that use foam rollers will roll out this area.

The IT band is a fascial structure and essentially a long tendon.   In the main, making a tendon overly lax is far from ideal as tendons are intended to provide a strong tensile structure for muscles to pull on.  We certainly need to consider this when applying foam rolling to the ITB, as it can lead to hip or lower back issues.  When I work with clients with hip or lower back issues, a majority of the ones that use foam rollers, roll out their ITBs.  Coincidence?

So Let’s Go Back To Root Cause, Common Patterns and Treatment

Train of thought 1:

Most of our patterns of compensation occur in standing or seated positions, while foam rolling techniques are applied in prone, supine or side-lying position.  From these positions, we do not have to resist gravitational forces, and arguably there is less need for muscular tension and the nervous system will behave differently from when required to respond to upright postures.

Based on the above, I would argue to make and affect true, meaningful and sustainable change we should attempt to replicate the demands placed on the nervous and proprioceptive systems i.e. build a programme of change that challenges you in these upright positions.

Train of thought 2:

Many people find themselves repeatedly foam rolling the same problem areas, time after time.  Your unchanged training session, or programme, has not taught the neuro-musculoskeletal system anything new. Consequently, the same areas remain overworked, becoming repeatedly tight and sore.

I offer the fact foam rolling techniques alone do not change movement mechanics. Foam rolling can be powerful, in the same way as massage can, but it has to be used in combination with a programme of movement pattern training and re-training. 

Conclusion and Training Tips

Try to include a programme of training with static and dynamic postural assessment to highlight dysfunctional movement patterns, and consider the role of foam rolling as part of the programme and how it can support movement-based corrective exercise.

If you’re an athlete with specific and repeated movement patterns, i.e. running, jumping, kicking and punching, then consider the integration of a complementary exercise programme that helps to address muscular and movement biases.  This can help to increase efficacy of movement, reduce risk of injury and improve training effect and performance.

True and valuable functional movement training programmes should reflect the multiplanar and gravity-resisting nature of human movement. Foam rollers should therefore not be used in isolation but as a support tool to facilitate the end goal of healthy human movement.

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