Foam rolling has been under some scrutiny lately due to the fact that what we once thought it did is no longer popular belief. Its been called the poor man's massage, and with this name came the assumption that it was on par with soft tissue work from a massage professional. Although it has been mentioned that foam rolling will never be as valuable as actual hands-on attention, the differences have never really been clearly explained. Due to this fact, some people are now questioning the value of foam rolling altogether. However, just because it doesn’t do what we once thought it did doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile.
It used to be believed that foam rolling created a change within the tissue. A change much like the effects of a deep tissue massage. Following this line of logic, the pressure applied by the roller would produce a chemical reaction that would in-turn create a change within the tissue (breakup adhesions, knots, realign fiber direction, etc). However, many practitioners have explained that the pressure is not great enough, and the absence of a shearing force between layers of tissue prevents foam rolling from having the same effect. If you have ever had a relaxing massage, and a deep tissue massage, you already understand the difference between the two. A deep tissue massage leaves you sore like you worked out the day before. A relaxing massage makes you feel refreshed and renewed. Foam rolling is like a relaxing massage, while deep tissue work will have you feeling the effects the next day. These are both valuable in their own way, just commonly misunderstood.
So, if foam rolling doesn’t create change within the tissue why do we see positive results? Foam rolling moves bound fluid out and new fluid in (increasing blood flow and aiding in lymphatic drainage). With this process comes a renewal of tissue, removal of waste, and delivery of nourishment. All very positive results. However, the most important aspect of foam rolling involves its effect on the nervous system. On a very basic level, the human body alternates between a stressed state (sympathetic) and a relaxed state (parasympathetic). It is this very shifting that keeps us alive and well. The problem is, is that most of us find ourselves stuck in a stressed state with a certain inability to relax. With daily stress, inactivity, and instability, we find ourselves stuck in this state. If we are permanently in a stressed state, recovery suffers, sleep suffers, we compensate with poor movement patterns, and tissues begin to breakdown. This is why it’s so important to find ways to tell our body that it is in fact okay to relax.
One effective strategy to help the body shift back to a relaxed state happens to be foam rolling. Foam rolling uses pressure to basically trick the brain into letting go of artificial tension. When you look at the recent popularity of the Postural Restoration Institute, where this concept is discussed, it makes a lot of sense. Most of us are just neurologically tight and in a bad position. We may not have any mobility or muscle length problems present in the first place. When the nervous system feels threatened it guards us from injury by creating superficial stability (what most would feel as tightness). PRI's method uses breathing to get the body to let go of this guarding. Foam rolling uses pressure to tell the body to let go. Once the nervous system relaxes we gain range of motion and we feel a decrease in tension. With increases in range of motion we get closer to our ideal length tension relationships. These normalized relationships take pressure off of secondary tissues and allow primary tissues to perform at an optimal level. All without stretching one thing.
At the end of the day, if we can get the nervous system to let go of its death grip and give us increases in ROM without even having to stretch, we’re going to program it. Foam rolling is only a small piece of the puzzle and creating change depends on several components within an integrated system. Strategies such as foam rolling, breathing, and static stretching only temporarily create change. What they really do is create a window of opportunity to create lasting change. The real question is what you do with that window.
Still not sold? Lebron is...
Blake Gourley holds a Masters of Science in Sports Performance Training and has over 10 years of experience working with rowers. Read more