The Science Behind Foam Rolling

You’ve seen them:

The people lying in the middle of the floor at one of our clubs, rolling around on a tube of styrofoam.

It can look at little strange, but they are actually using a technique called self-myofascial release. The term “myofascial” refers to the soft tissue of the body, specifically the muscles and web of connective-tissue throughout, surrounding, and connecting the muscle groups.

A DIY Massage

Self-myofascial release is a type of therapy you can do for yourself to treat skeletal muscle immobility and pain. If you’ve ever had deep tissue massage, it’s a bit like that.  Only you’re using your body weight and the foam roller to create the pressure instead of the therapist’s hands and body.

How do foam rollers treat immobility and pain?

Your muscle fibers have special feedback structures that alert the nervous system and create a reflexive response in the muscle. One is the muscle spindle which lies parallel to the muscle fibers and responds to increasing tension by stimulating the muscles to contract.

This prevents overstretching and injury. Another, called the golgi tendon organ (GTO), is actually in the connective tissue (fascia) particularly the musculotendinous region (between the muscle bundle and the tendon) which responds to increasing tension by stimulating the muscle to relax. This also protects you from injury by making you drop an extremely heavy weight.

Physical health and fitness goals vary among individuals, depending on one’s lifestyle and choice of activities. One person’s goal may be to be able to compete at a high level in a particular sport; for another, a goal may be to be able to carry children and groceries, or to work in the garden, or jog for weight loss.

Generally the goal of exercise, fitness, and/or physical health is, among other things, ease of movement, the absence of pain, and the ability to move and perform tasks without unnecessary compensatory movement. Compensatory movement is an alteration in the way one moves, usually as a result of tension, weakness, and/or pain, and often resulting in more tension, pain and compensations.

This is known as the “cumulative injury cycle”:

  • An injury results in inflammation and muscle spasm (or tightening around a weak area to protect it)
  • Which leads to adhesions (scar tissue that tends to be sticky rather than slippery and impede movement)
  • Which leads to alterations in movement (compensations) and to muscular imbalances which can lead to more injury, and so on…

The “knots” or tender spots you find when you foam roll may be either the muscle spasm or the adhesion mentioned above. Foam rolling activates the GTO, resulting in release of muscular tension. It also “stirs” the connective tissue, or fascia, making it more fluid and mobile.

Wait, what?

OK, here’s the really cool part. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, there is connective tissue running through, around, and connecting muscle groups, known as fascia. It is a fascinating but under-appreciated part of the body. In classical anatomy, the tendency was to emphasize the muscles and their discreteness, that is, we identified individual muscles and distinct muscle groups.

For example, we know that the calf is made up primarily of three muscles: the lateral and medial gastrocnemius, and the soleus. Taking into account the fascia, however, we see that through the connective tissue structures, these are connected to the foot below and the upper leg as well as the back and even into the head.

You may be thinking, “Well of course they are, that’s how we move.” Yes, the muscles act directly on the surrounding structures of the body, but what is under-appreciated is how connected they really are! Your foot is, in reality, directly connected to your head!

The implication of this is that an injury in one part of the body can affect another, quite distant part.

Fascia also has some interesting properties: it is plastic and elastic. That is, it can change states; and it acts to provide a continuous inward pulling tensional network. Fascia is gel-like when it is not moving, but becomes more fluid when “stirred.” So we have this “net”-work of tissue that has this property of being both strong and supple, that runs through and around all of the bones, muscles and organs of the body, and that distributes tension evenly throughout, keeping us literally “pulled together.”

Because movement yields more mobility, and elasticity provides for equal distribution of stress or tension, stimulating the golgi tendon organs to release bound muscles creates movement, leading to more fluidity in the surrounding structures and redistributing this relaxed tension, creating a more functionally balanced structure throughout the body.

Stay tuned for more about fascia in future posts. There’s so much more to tell!

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