Historically, the worlds of fitness and physical therapy have been at odds with each other, the latter putting back together what the former breaks down. Physical therapists will warn you that even walking can be dangerous; athletes will tell you that it wasn’t a good workout if every muscle isn’t screaming the next day. But lately, these two adversaries have found one thing to agree on: the benefits of foam rolling.
Physical, massage and sports therapists have used foam rolling for decades in their practices. And now this proven and effective therapeutic technique has made its way into the fitness industry, introduced to the masses predominantly by CrossFit boxes (and thanks, yes, primarily to Kelly Starrett and his MobilityWOD program).
Put simply, foam rollers help athletes apply pressure to muscles in order to relieve tightness therein. This tightness takes the form of “trigger points” — hyperirritable spots that often can be felt as “knots” in muscle fibers. The pressure applied to a trigger point can aid in the recovery of tight muscles and assist in returning them to normal responsiveness, which means they’re elastic and ready and able to perform when called on. Who wouldn’t want that?
Every skeletal muscle is wrapped in a thin connective tissue called fascia, which is made up of collagen and elastin, and it encapsulates the muscle and allows other muscles and structures to slide over it. Problems occur when an athlete completes an intense training session, particularly one in which they performed activities they are unaccustomed to. Training hard — or with new, unfamiliar exercises — creates micro-trauma, or microscopic tears in muscle fibers, and part of the body’s response to those tears is edema, or swelling. We feel this as pain and call it delayed onset muscle soreness. Every CrossFitter who’s doing it right knows the feeling of waking up the day after a tough WOD feeling soreness in a specific muscle group.
But it’s too easy to consider simple muscle soreness as part and parcel of pursuing an extremely active lifestyle. The problem arises when fascia, which like muscle is soft tissue, gets stressed and develops tears. Over time and without intervention, fascial tears can become scar tissue, thereby limiting the responsiveness of the muscle. And as you might imagine, tight fascia can affect blood flow and nervous response to the muscle because blood vessels and nerves must pass through it to supply the muscle.
Enter Foam Rolling
There are critical — and immediate — benefits to leveraging your bodyweight to target sore muscles with a roller. Here are the most significant.
Reduced Muscle Tightness
First, the foam roller acts as a deep massager. Intuitively, athletes feel this beneficial effect. The muscle is physically manipulated, and scar tissue in the muscle can be broken up, reducing feelings of muscle tightness. More important, blood flow is enhanced, and that improved blood flow brings warmth to the soft tissue. Interestingly, a recent study also found that foam rolling can reduce blood-vessel stiffness, meaning even blood delivery can be improved — especially important during and after any met-con in which oxygen, CO2 and lactate must circulate unimpeded through the working muscle.
Fascial Tissue Release
Fascial scar tissue is also broken up with foam rolling. Ohio trainer John Parrillo believes strongly in the importance of maintaining healthy and responsive fascia, and his athletes appear to benefit from his focus on fascial massage. In fact, the medical term used for foam rolling — self-myofascial release — speaks to the importance of fascia in the musculoskeletal system. When fascial scar tissue is broken up, it “releases” the muscle to respond fully.
Neural drive” is a term many CrossFitters — or athletes in general — are not familiar with. But everyone knows its effect.
When a person whacks their shin against the corner of a coffee table, what does that person instinctively do? Rub his or her shin, right? And that really does make it feel better. Ever wonder why?
Direct pressure on the skin and deeper tissues activates mechanoreceptors — sensory receptors that respond to distortion or pressure. When a mechanoreceptor is activated, it shuts down the neural drive, or pain sensation.
A trigger point is no different. When you press hard on a trigger point, it shuts down the neural drive back at the central nervous system, reduces pain, allows better freedom of movement and reduces fatigue.
In the January 2014 issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, a study reported the effects of foam rolling on fatigue, soreness and exertion on college-age individuals. Because most foam-rolling positions require the athlete to be in a plank position, researchers had the control group hold a plank, while the test group used the foam roller. The result was that the subjects who used foam rollers before exercise experienced less post-exercise fatigue than those who only planked.
Here are three general points to remember when teaching athletes (or yourself) to use foam rollers correctly.
In theory, using a foam roller is straightforward, but doing it effectively takes practice and coordination.
Start by finding an open area on the floor. A mat may be helpful to reduce the likelihood that discomfort from rolling on a hard floor affects your ability to assess your own pain level when rolling. (Yes, rolling is painful.)
Bodyweight creates the pressure that massages and releases tight spots in the fascia, so roll over various areas by applying more or less bodyweight on the foam roller and using your hands and feet to offset your weight as needed. Try a variety of positions and see what works best for you.
Once you get a feel for how to manipulate your body on the roller to apply the appropriate amount of pressure, search for trigger points and roll directly on these areas. Remember, by applying pressure to these points, you can shut down the neural drive to that area, decrease the density of that point, and reduce the stiffness and pain coming from it. And in this case, no pain, no gain.
Over time and with direction on finding common trigger points (see below), most athletes can easily find the tender spots on their own. If you find a particularly painful area, hold the pressure there until the area softens and becomes less dense.
It is not uncommon to experience pain or discomfort when foam rolling. This pain should be similar in nature to the pain you feel when stretching — uncomfortable but never extraordinary or unbearable. More important, when you finish a rolling session, the affected areas should feel better. If sharp or excruciating pain is ever felt, cease rolling immediately. To minimize the level of pain felt during a rolling session, only roll warm muscles (i.e., after a warm-up or a WOD).
Also, keep in mind that a situation called pain referral often occurs when mechanoreceptors are stimulated — something that’s unavoidable in foam rolling. Pain referral is pain felt in one area of the body when pressure is applied to another area. This pain may feel as if it has radiated from the pain source to another area. Again, however, this pain should be nothing more than discomfort, relieved when the pressure ceases.
Targeting Problematic Muscles
Below are ways to target particularly troublesome areas — those often vulnerable to trigger points.
The adductors are one of the most neglected muscle groups in the body. These are the muscles on the inside of your thighs that bring your legs together. They are made up of the adductor brevis, adductor longus and adductor magnus. To hit them, lie facedown on the floor, supporting your weight on your forearms. Extend one leg (keeping it straight if you have the mobility; bend at the knee if not) and place the roller under the inside of that thigh, then roll over it from just above the knee toward the groin.
To hit trigger points in the hamstrings, extend your legs and place the roller under the hamstrings. Your body should be resting entirely on the roller underneath your legs. Use your arms to roll yourself forward and back. For self-myofascial release of the quadriceps, flip over so that you’re facedown, again supporting your weight on your forearms, and place the roller on the quadriceps. Use your arms to pull your body over the roller.
Athletes often blame the iliotibial band, a thick tendon that runs down the outside of each leg, for the pain they feel on their outer thigh anywhere from the top of the hip down to the knee. The natural solution is to foam-roller it, but because it’s just a tendon, the IT band does not have contractile properties; it transfers the tension it receives from the muscles that pull on it — the tensor fascia lata and gluteus medius, which we address below. If you are determined to roll your IT band, go easy with the pressure at first because it can be quite painful. Then focus on the muscles that actually affect the IT band.
Tensor Fascia Lata and Gluteus Medius
The tensor fascia lata (a small muscle at the front of the hip) and gluteus medius (one of the butt muscles), though small in size, are major players in IT band syndrome and knee pain. To apply pressure to these muscles, target the tensor fascia lata by lying facedown with the roller placed just below the iliac crest (the highest point of the pelvis on the sides of the ilium, which is the largest part of the pelvis). To target the gluteus medius, lie on your back and place the roller under the upper part of your butt. It may take a bit of light rolling to find these little muscles, but you’ll feel it and the IT band when you get the roller under them.
To break up trigger points in the upper back, place your hands behind your head and position the roller horizontally under the trapezius. Keep your feet flat on the floor and hips raised until they are unsupported; pressure can be adjusted by raising or lowering the hips. Make sure to keep your neck in a neutral position — with your ears and shoulders aligned — as you roll.