The Science of How Foam Rolling Works

The Science of How Foam Rolling Works

how foam rolling works on hamstring

Like deep tissue massage, using a high-quality foam roller equals more than a feel-good experience. It’s a form of self-myofascial release that should be a crucial part of anyone's pre and post-workout routines — and for many good reasons. Here we’ll look at some of the benefits of foam rolling, as well as break down the exact science behind how foam rolling works to improve your range of motion, reduce pain and soreness, and more.

Benefits of Foam Rolling

Whether you’re a professional athlete or a weekend warrior, foam rolling can elevate your physical and mental performance to help you reach new heights. Here are just a few of the unique benefits of foam rolling that you’ll feel within days of your first rolling session.

  • Better flexibility: Flexible muscles are stronger and less prone to injuries, enabling you to be more efficient and precise with your movements. This can lead to improvements in your balance, posture, strength, and speed.

  • Improved circulation: Healthy blood flow means your muscles consistently receive the oxygen, nutrients, and hormones they need to function properly. This is necessary for removing metabolic waste, delivering chemical energy, and keeping you moving even as your muscles fatigue.

  • Healthier fascia: After intense workouts or injuries, adhesions can form on your fascia — connective tissues that surround each muscle fiber — resulting in limited mobility, pain, and decreased strength. Foam rolling breaks up scar tissue and frees your muscles from these painful knots.

  • Boosted athletic performance: A greater range of motion (ROM) can elevate the quality of your workouts since it means less pain and stiffness during and after exercising. It also helps to prevent injuries and shorten your recovery times, enabling you to be more efficient and effective with your workouts.

  • Faster healing: Foam rolling produces a systemic biochemical effect that increases your body’s neutrophils (white blood cells that support your immune system and help heal injuries) and activates the formation of new mitochondria. At the same time, it minimizes exercise-induced skeletal muscle damage, cellular stress, and inflammation.

  • Shortened recovery times: Foam rolling before exercising helps your body prepare for dynamic movements and lowers your chances of injury, while doing so after you exercise can minimize post-exercise fatigue and prevent cramps. Ultimately, this reduces the amount of downtime you need between workout sessions.

  • Reduced muscle soreness: Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is your body’s natural inflammatory response to a challenging workout. It’s normal and even necessary for your muscles to be sore after you exercise, but foam rolling can reduce the duration and intensity of DOMS, improving your comfort level.


The Science Behind How Foam Rolling Works

Foam rolling triggers a series of physiological and mechanical responses within the body, which lead to the release of trigger points and muscle tension. Understanding these processes provides valuable insights into how foam rolling works.

Sensory Stimulation and Mechanoreceptor Activation

When you apply pressure to a muscle using a foam roller, it stimulates various sensory receptors embedded within the muscles and surrounding fascia. These receptors, known as mechanoreceptors, detect mechanical stimuli like pressure and stretching. The most prominent mechanoreceptors involved in foam rolling are the Golgi tendon organs (GTOs) and the muscle spindles.

Relaxation Response and Neuromuscular Adaptation

The activation of mechanoreceptors during foam rolling triggers a relaxation response within the target muscle. The GTOs, located at the junction between muscles and tendons, sense changes in tension. When pressure is applied, it stimulates GTOs and signals the muscles to relax. This relaxation response alleviates muscle tension and reduces the sensitivity of trigger points, ultimately improving muscle function.

Moreover, foam rolling affects the muscle spindles, sensory receptors that detect changes in muscle length. The pressure from the foam roller temporarily suppresses muscle spindles, removing the feeling of muscle tightness. As a result, this neuromuscular adaptation allows for increased muscle flexibility and improved ROM.

Increased Blood Flow and Tissue Oxygenation

Foam rolling not only applies pressure on your muscles; it also exerts mechanical stress on your blood vessels. When treated with a foam roller, the mechanical stress causes specialized cells in your blood vessel walls to release nitric oxide synthase (NOS). NOS interacts with the amino acid l-arginine to form nitric oxide. 

If nitric oxide sounds familiar, that's because it's a popular treatment for erectile dysfunction and heart disease. Nitric oxide is a potent muscle relaxant. By acting specifically on the muscles of the blood vessels, nitric oxide causes blood vessel walls to relax and widen, increasing blood flow. Nitric oxide improves oxygen utilization, increases aerobic capacity, delays the onset of fatigue, and enhances overall endurance performance.  

How to Get the Most Out of Foam Rolling

Enjoy the full potential of self-myofascial release (SMR) safely by making it a habit and using proper technique.

  • Choose the right tool. Use a foam roller that mimics the skill and precision of a certified physical therapist. It should be designed to apply just the right amount of pressure to target muscles, allowing for effective self-myofascial release without the price tag of a masseuse.

  • Use proper form. Keep proper alignment and avoid overarching your back or straining your neck so you don’t inadvertently injure yourself or aggravate any existing injuries.

  • Relax. Try to keep your muscles loose as you roll since tension and holding your breath can limit the effectiveness of SMR.

  • Be consistent. Make foam rolling a regular part of your routine by incorporating it before and after workouts. Aim for two to three minutes of targeted rolling per muscle group. Consistent practice will yield greater improvements in ROM, recovery times, and overall athletic performance.

  • Make adjustments as necessary. Pay attention to how your body responds during and after foam rolling. Adjust the duration and intensity according to your needs and goals. If you experience sharp pain or discomfort, modify the pressure or seek guidance from a healthcare professional.

Now that you have a better idea of how foam rolling can elevate your workouts, it’s up to you to add it to your routine — ideally, before your dynamic warmup and following your cooldown.

Keep in mind, a foam roller is an effective tool on its own, but foam rolling works best when you incorporate it into a comprehensive pre-workout and post-workout recovery strategy. Try to be as consistent as possible, and commit to using the proper form and technique, and you’ll soon be experiencing all that foam rolling can do for you and your body.

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