Foam Roller Relaxation: Is it Really Helpful, or a Waste of Time?
Walking into any gym or fitness studio, we can almost see all kinds of foam rollers, long, short, mace-style, and more advanced ones as well as vibrating foam rollers. Foam rollers have become the "standard" of the fitness industry.
Rolling a foam roller is a way of "self-fascial relaxation". In addition to that, we can use tennis balls, peanut balls, exploding fascia guns, and even barbells for this purpose.
Foam rollers are generally considered to serve the following purposes:
- Improve flexibility, including range of motion
- Improves short-term athletic performance if used as part of a warm-up
- Reduce post-exercise muscle soreness (DOMS)
So which of these statements about rolling foam rollers are true and which are false? If so, how noticeable is the effect? How long can it last? In the following content, I will take you to understand the theory behind the foam roller.
As mentioned earlier, rolling a foam roller is a way of "self-fascial relaxation". So in order to understand self-fascial relaxation, we first need to understand the relevant definitions of fascia and trigger point.
You may have seen many definitions of fascia and trigger point in many other articles, but few people know that there are two issues that we need to pay attention to when giving definitions. The first is that we still don’t know how relevant the fascia is to foam rolling, and the second is that the field of research on fascia is still in its infancy , and researchers are groping ahead despite difficulties. Even Thomas, author of Anatomy Train, mentions that fascia is not fully studied.
The current definition of fascia is this: Fascia is the soft tissue component of the connective tissue system that runs through and surrounds muscles, bones, organs, nerves, blood vessels, and other structures from head to toe, front to back, and superficial To the deep layer, an uninterrupted three-dimensional network is formed.
Pain caused by localized fascial tension, commonly referred to as fascial pain syndrome, is thought to be caused by "trigger points." This pain can theoretically be relieved by self-fascial relaxation.
Foam Roller Relaxation and Flexibility
Static stretching has long been used as one of the ways to improve flexibility before training. However, if you stretch for too long, it can also affect your performance. Therefore, if foam roller relaxation can be used as an alternative to improving flexibility before training without negative effects, then it is recommended.
In 2013, MacDonald et al. studied the effect of self-fascial relaxation of the quadriceps on the range of motion of the knee joint . Eleven healthy men were divided into two groups, one group used a foam roller to relax the quadriceps for 1 minute, twice, and the other group was a control group (no foam roller was used). It was found that after 2 minutes and 10 minutes of relaxing the quadriceps with the foam roller, the range of motion of the knee joint increased by 10° and 8°, respectively, and the motor performance of the muscles was not affected.
In another study , researchers compared the effects of static stretching and foam rolling of the calf muscles on ankle range of motion, maximal voluntary contraction, and EMG characteristics of the triceps calf. Fourteen trained subjects were tested in two independent randomized crossover designs. Before the test, subjects either did static stretches or foam rollers for 3 sets, each lasting 30 seconds, with a 10-second rest between sets. After testing, it was found that both methods improved ankle range of motion, but only the subjects who relaxed with the foam roller improved maximal voluntary contraction, while the subjects who did the static stretch had an improvement in maximal force output. reduced.
Therefore, from the above two studies, we can find that foam rolling can indeed improve the range of motion of joints, and it will not affect sports performance.
Although other studies have found that self-fascial relaxation does not improve range of motion, in general, self-fascial relaxation seems to improve short-term range of motion.
As for how long this "short-term" time is, based on the research I mentioned above, the effect of foam roller relaxation on improving range of motion seems to be around 10 minutes . So if you want the foam roller to help you, it's best to relax in the area you want to improve within 10 minutes before the actual training, rather than rolling all over the body. For example, use a foam roller to roll your triceps before squatting to improve ankle range of motion, roll your inner thighs forward with a sumo deadlift to make the movement more comfortable, and roll your thoracic spine forward with a barbell bench press to better maintain your arch.
Foam Roller Relaxation and Sports Performance
In the two studies I mentioned above, you should have found that foam rollers did not have the same negative impact on athletic performance as static stretching. Of course, other studies have not found any negative effects of foam roller relaxation before exercise on exercise performance, and there are even studies showing that it improves exercise performance.
For example, a 2014 study  compared the effects of two warm-up methods on athletic performance: 1. a full-body dynamic warm-up, and 2. a full-body dynamic warm-up plus self-fascial relaxation. The results of the study found that dynamic warm-up combined with self-fascial relaxation resulted in overall improvements in performance tests, including power, agility, strength, and speed.
Therefore, self-fascial relaxation before exercise does not affect short-term exercise performance.
Foam Rolling and Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness
Many people have the habit of static stretching and foam rolling after training. As I mentioned in this article , stretching does not relieve muscle soreness and speed up recovery. But can a foam roller do this?
Let's take a look at this study from 2014 . In the study, 20 male subjects with at least three years of training experience were randomly divided into two groups of 10. The subjects would do a 10×10 squat training program, the only difference being that one group did not do any relaxation after training, and one group would use a foam roller to relax for 20 minutes. The results of the study found that the subjects who used the foam roller to relax were less sore 24, 48 and 72 hours after training.
It should be noted, however, that in this study, the researchers used a visual analog scale to measure pain. Briefly describe the method:
A visual analogue scale (VAS) was used for pain assessment. It is widely used clinically in China. The basic method is to use a walking scale about 10cm long, with 10 scales on one side, and the two ends are respectively "0" and "10". A score of 10 represents the most excruciating pain.
This method will bring some errors due to your own subjective feelings, or think about it, can you distinguish between very sore and very, very sore? Another way to measure muscle soreness is by palpation, usually by reference to the pressure pain threshold, which is a bit more objective.
Therefore, the same research team performed a similar experiment a year later, this time using a more objective pain palpation method to allow subjects to perceive muscle soreness . Likewise, the results of the study found that subjects who used foam rollers for relaxation experienced less muscle soreness. Not only that, but they also improved the 30-meter sprint time, further showing that the foam roller speeds up recovery.
For now, though, the data isn't very convincing enough to use foam rolling as a separate recovery method and expect it to work wonders. Instead, we also need to consider other more practical methods , such as low-intensity cycling or walking (which can increase blood flow to damaged muscles and thus speed up recovery without causing further fatigue).
Some other points to note
The mechanism by which foam rolling improves flexibility is unclear, but the best evidence so far points to neurophysiological mechanisms related to muscle activity (note: this is different from static stretching). Likewise, the mechanism by which foam rollers improve delayed onset muscle soreness is unclear, and the best evidence so far points to inhibition of pain feedback .
In addition, due to differences in the design protocols and intervention methods of different studies, it is difficult for us to reach a consensus on the specific use of foam rollers. However, based on current evidence, I recommend 2-3 sets of 30 seconds to two minutes 2-5 times a week to get the benefits of a foam roller.
Finally, low to moderate pressure needs to be applied when implementing foam roller relaxation. On a pain scale of 1-10, the suggested pressure applied is between 2-5. However, as experience with the foam roller increases, the pressure applied may need to be gradually increased.
Current research on the effectiveness of foam rollers is not very sufficient to reach a consensus, with most studies having small sample sizes and widely varying experimental designs. Therefore, higher-quality randomized controlled trials and more consistent intervention protocols are needed to further confirm the effectiveness of foam rollers in the future.
However, based on the current evidence, foam roller relaxation may offer benefits such as improved flexibility, relief from delayed onset muscle soreness, and improved recovery without compromising athletic performance. Therefore, instead of static stretching, I recommend using a foam roller.
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