To (foam) roll, or not to (foam) roll? That is the question….

At ABSOLUTE.PHYSIO we regularly get asked advice and questions on foam rolling.

  • ‘When should I do it?’
  • ‘How do I do it?’
  • ‘Am I doing it enough?’
  • ‘No pain no gain, right?’
  • ‘Are the rollers with spikes better than the ‘smooth’ ones?
  • Or from the more, let’s say, agriculturally inclined ‘Will a bit of wavin piping do the job?’

And behind all of these questions there appears to be one common thought process or rationale for foam rolling…. ‘To break up the knots in my muscles which are inhibiting my sporting performance.. How can I do this best?

’The simple answer to that question is… you can’t. It is not possible to break up adhesions and scar tissue by rolling up and down and forward and back on a foam roller.

This is a nice infographic from (credit) vitasphysio to illustrate certain things which can and cannot break down scar tissue and adhesions. I recommend following vitasphysio on social media. They produce some really great content.

To go one further, it is continually argued if these so called knots, adhesions and trigger points even exist (although that point is a completely different debate for another day/blog).

Why foam rolling cannot create physical or structural change in tissue.

Our musculoskeletal system is strong, robust and resilient. It has be in order for us to ‘hold our shape’ and function under stress, load and demand. Our soft tissue structures do not deform or change easily. One scientific study by Chaudhry et al (2008) calculated that we would need approximately 852 kg of force in order to create just a 1% change in tissue structure. And guess what, we cannot exert these kinds of pressure with a piece of foam.

Jarod Hall (DPT), another one to follow, also does a great job at illustrating how strong and resilient our soft tissue is in this picture. He does relate it to soft tissue mobilisation with hands but the same premise is there for foam rolling.

But this is not to say that foam rolling doesn’t have a ‘roll’ to play (pun 100% intended). It just means that the effects are not those which we intended or thought necessary in order to ‘feel better’.

What might be happening then?

Rather than creating structural change in muscle tissue, it is suggested that by foam rolling we are actually having an effect on neuromodulation on the nervous system which in turn creates a change in the body’s perception of tightness and/or pain. This theory is strengthened by a study by Aboodarda et al (2015) who demonstrated a cross over effect from foam rolling, that is, changes in the opposite side of the body (in the case of this study it was the opposite calf). So how can foam rolling your ‘right’ calf make your ‘left’ calf feel better… Explanation… foam rolling has an effect on the nervous system and so we can tolerate stress, stretch, load and pressure better on both sides of the body as they are both supplied by the same neural tissue higher up the pathway.

How we might use foam rolling?

A study in 2017 by Morales-Artacho et al demonstrated a short term effect of foam rolling during a warm up. These effects were sustained longer when combined with an active warm up component.The same study recommends rolling during the time between warm-up and competition.

Another study in 2013 by Sullivan et al looked at how long we need to foam roll for and reported that just 10 seconds per set led to increases in range of movement.

There is no evidence to suggest long term benefits of foam rolling and therefore, a regular and often very time consuming foam rolling program outside of your regular warm up cannot be recommended.

So to go back to the original questions:

  • ‘When should I do it?’ – During warm-up – incorporate active warm-up component.
  • ‘How do I do it?’ – Short bursts. 10seconds per set
  • ‘Am I doing it enough?’ – Probably too much
  • ‘No pain no gain, right?’ – Not necessarily. All we want to do is create a response in the neural tissue. Not ‘rip our muscle knots apart’
  • ‘Are the rollers with spikes better than the ‘smooth’ ones? – Nope
  • Or from the more, let’s say, agriculturally inclined ‘Will a bit of wavin piping do the job?’ – Probably

So what can you do with all this free time you have on your hands now that you’re not going to be rolling your little hearts out??

I’ll let you decide. But can I suggest sleep? Lack of sleep and inadequate recovery is a major player in developing injury.

References:

  1. Chaudhry H., Schleip R., Ji Z., Three-dimensional mathematical model for deformation of human fasciae in manual therapy.Journal of the American Osteopathic Association. 2008;108(8):379–390
  2. Aboodarda SJ, Spence AJ, Button DC. Pain pressure threshold of a muscle tender spot increases following local and non-local rolling massage. BMC Musculoskelet Disord. 2015;16:265.
  3. Sullivan, K. M., Silvey, D. B., Button, et al. Roller-massager application to the hamstrings increases sit-and-reach range of motion within five to ten seconds without performance impairments.International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy. 2013;8(3), 228
  4. Mohr AR, Long BC, Goad CL. Effect of foam rolling and static stretching on passive hip-flexion range of motion.J Sport Rehabil. 2014;23:296–9.

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