Written by Physiotherapist Shayla Hall
Foam rolling has exploded from an obscure practice of professional athletes to a staple among weekend warriors and grandmas alike.
Because it works. Clinically, personally, and anecdotally I see great results with adding rolling to one’s rehab program.
I’ve heard (and historically have probably said…oops) that foam rolling breaks up scar tissue, stretches fascia (IT band), and reduces adhesions that form between muscles. Years after the pioneers brought rolling to the masses, research about the force required to effect tissue structure has become available.
I’ll spare you the p-values and probability clusters (what?). Essentially, I would have to drive a truck over your IT band to break the first 1% of the superficial layer of fascia. It is highly unlikely that foam rolling has a direct and significant structural effect on soft tissue. If you think about it, thank goodness our bodies don’t work that way. I would be covered in dents and divots. Office workers all over the world would suffer from “Square-butt Chair-Syndrome” as their glute structure morphed into their swivel chairs. What about people in car accidents? Thankfully our bodies are designed to be strong, resilient, and force resistant.
So why does foam rolling work?
The explanation for rolling, much like many physiotherapy modalities, is a neurophysiological one. This is where my patient’s eyes usually glaze over and I wonder if the resulting boredom-slash-patient-confusion is worth it. In this case, it absolutely is. Focus those eyeballs and read on.
We roll muscles that feel “tight” or have “trigger points”. In the rehab world, we call this “tonic” muscles – basically the nervous system is firing signals at the muscle that make it impossible for the muscle to relax. Rolling provides a proprioceptive input, which triggers the nervous system to send an output. If done correctly, foam rolling provides a non-threating input which triggers a down-regulation of the tone by the nervous system.
Phew. You still with me? I’ll summarize: Foam rolling works via our fancy-pants nervous system…it doesn’t break up scar tissue or obliterate fascia.
Who cares though right? **she grabs a PVC-pipe roller and rolls the &*%$ out of her ITB**
In this case, it is important that patients know how foam rolling works because the dosage changes. If I am trying to break up fascia, I’m going to roll HARD. I’m going to hold my breath through the pain. If I’m trying to send input to the nervous system, I am going to dial down the intensity, use my breath, and avoid the intense pain that could actually further “threaten” my nervous system. I’ll probably get better results. The duration can change too. If my knee is sore doing a squat, I will foam roll my leg. If I’m trying to break down the ITB, then I’ll probably need to spend a long time rolling. In actuality, I just need enough rolling to down-regulate my lateral quad and make my squat pain free. If this happens with 30 seconds of rolling, then I’m done. I won’t see additional gains by rolling around for 20 minutes because my nervous system has already gotten the message.
While practicing in Whistler, I have come across a lot of athletes who swear that HARD rolling is what they need. I believe them, even though I don’t believe they are breaking down fascia. Everyone’s body is different. People respond differently: to rolling, to treatment, to exercise. I encourage you to experiment with the roller to see how little you need to see a result. Life is short, so if 30 seconds of moderate rolling is all you need to hit the trails, then get up off the floor and get going!