The Science of How Foam Rolling Works

The Science of How Foam Rolling Works

how foam rolling works on hamstring

Everyone fancies a good massage, but not always the hefty spa bill that comes with it. Foam rolling offers a cost-effective alternative to traditional deep tissue massages, with the added benefit that you can relieve pain & tension on your own time, without booking an appointment. Like deep tissue massage, foam rolling is 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. And in this article, we’ll break down the exact science behind how foam rolling works to improve your range of motion, reduce pain & soreness, and shorten recovery times.

Benefits of Foam Rolling

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

Improved flexibility and range of motion (ROM)

Flexibility and a full ROM are crucial to an effective workout. Flexible muscles are stronger and less prone to injuries, enabling you to be more efficient & precise with your movements. Similarly, you’ll experience less pain & stiffness but greater athletic performance with an increased ROM 

Foam rolling activates your body's muscle relaxation mechanisms, which frees your muscles from knots and adhesions that cause tightness and stiffness. With consistent use, foam rolling: 

  • Increases flexibility
  • Corrects muscle imbalances 
  • Boosts the quality of your workouts 
  • Improves your overall athletic performance

Improved circulation

Optimal blood circulation is vital to general health and athletic performance. Healthy blood flow means that your muscles consistently receive the oxygen, nutrients, and hormones that they need to function properly. 

As you roll a foam roller over your muscles, its compressive force increases blood flow to the target muscle. The added supply of nutrients helps your body function like a well-oiled machine; removing metabolic waste, delivering chemical energy, and keep you moving even as your muscles fatigue.  After exercise, foam rolling helps your muscles heal faster. 

Breaking up scar tissue and adhesions

Fascia is a web-like connective tissue that surrounds each muscle fiber. It provides structural support and stability and allows muscle fibers to glide smoothly against each other when you move. But after intense workouts, serious injuries, or other trauma, adhesions form on this tissue, limiting mobility, decreasing strength & flexibility, and causing significant pain. 

Foam rolling breaks up these adhesions by stimulating sensory receptors, triggering a relaxation response.

man foam rolling his arm

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 on a deeper level.

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

We've talked extensively about how the body's relaxation response to foam rolling promotes blood flow. But there's a lesser-known mechanism through which foam rolling also increases blood flow and tissue perfusion. 

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.  

What Happens After Trigger Point Release? 

Trigger points are notorious for causing muscle stiffness, significantly limiting your ROM. These points act as constrictions within the muscle fibers, preventing healthy blood flow. 

Consequently, the affected tissues become deprived of oxygen and essential nutrients. Accumulation of metabolic wastes within these trigger points worsen the problem, leading to further pain, tension, and even muscle spasms. 

Foam rolling takes advantage of the body's natural response to pressure. When you foam roll, the pressure helps release trigger points and promote relaxation. 

Reduced pain & soreness

Chances are, a grueling workout session has left you feeling like a train wreck at some point. Delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is normal, not to mention a necessary part of muscle building. Foam rolling allows you to target large areas of your body, making it an excellent tool for managing pain and soreness after a workout.

By promoting muscle relaxation and increasing nutrient and oxygen supply to target muscles, foam rolling promotes faster healing and restores optimal muscle function. The result? Less pain, more gym time, and better performance.

Foam rolling is most effective when incorporated into your pre and post-workout routine. We recommend foam rolling right before your dynamic warmups.

Shorter recovery times

Post-exercise muscle soreness lasts up to five days. While you can wait for your muscles to recover, this can easily send your progress off the rails. Active recovery with foam rolling has been shown to enhance muscle healing by increasing blood flow, releasing muscle tension, and reducing inflammation. 

With consistent use, foam rolling can help you set new personal bests on the track and in the gym, then do it all over again the next day. 

Improved pain management for acute & chronic injuries

Life happens, and injuries can happen to the best of us. Unlike the typical post-exercise muscle soreness, muscle injuries occur when muscle fibers tear due to excessive mechanical stress (acute) or overuse (chronic). 

RICE-ing your injuries can go a long way in preventing long-term damage, but you can speed up your recovery and manage pain by rolling with Rolflex Pro in just under 10 minutes daily. 

When you foam roll a mild hamstring strain or, say, carpal tunnel syndrome, it can help reduce pain and inflammation by: 

  • Stimulating the release of natural pain-relieving chemicals called endorphins. 
  • Increasing anti-inflammatory proteins in the damaged area.
  • Boosting blood flow.
  • Promoting muscle relaxation.

For safe and effective rolling of a muscle injury, DO NOT roll directly on the injured area. Instead, roll over the muscles directly above and below the injury.

How to Get the Most Out of Foam Rolling

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

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 range of motion, recovery times, and overall athletic performance. 

Use Proper form

When it comes to foam rolling, form matters. Keep proper alignment and avoid overarching your back or straining your neck. Try to relax your muscles as you roll. Tension and holding your breath can limit the effectiveness of SMR. 

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

Our arm & leg foam roller mimics the skill and precision of a certified physical therapist. They are 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. 

Applying pressure to target muscles stimulates mechanoreceptors, triggering physiologic responses that promote blood circulation, prevent injuries, and elevate your performance. While a foam roller is an effective tool on its own, foam rolling works best when incorporated into a comprehensive pre-workout and post-workout recovery strategy.

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