Foam Rolling: Releasing Tension

Back in the pre-COVID 19 era, my body would regularly feel tight from all the heavy resistance training in the gym. Daily muscle soreness would plague me and somehow, I’ve become desensitized to the pain. 5 months into the lockdown and somehow my body feels different. It seems that I’ve forgotten the tightness the iron brings. However, amidst this unfamiliar and somewhat uncomfortable suppleness, a new form of tension looms.

With limited equipment at home to do my workouts, repeating exercises and adding more volume to these exercises pose a risk to increase tightness once again. Needless to say, the mental and emotional stress brought by the pandemic also made my body feel locked up. Good thing is, I have a foam roller at home.

What is Foam Rolling?
Foam rolling is a form of manual therapy, just like massages. It became popular in the fitness scene (it was first used in the ballet world prior) during the 1980‘s and has since been considered to have many benefits. The top 3 benefits include:

1) Increase in flexibility/ range of motion
2) Reduce muscle soreness
3) Improve athletic performance

Increase in Flexibility
Our muscles, bones, organs and nerve fibers are all joined together and covered in a sheet of connective tissue called the fascia. Like a plastic covering a book, fascia protects the body and provides structural support, making it more intact. Fascia, however, can get tight and the fascia covering the muscles called myofascia can make your body feel stiff and limited. This is because when the muscle contract, they release lactate, a glue-like substance that binds muscle fibers together. The more you exercise, the more lactate byproduct is stored in your muscle fibers and the tighter you become. Emotional stress can also make the muscles stiff but we’ll save this for another article.

This is where myofascial release techniques like manual therapy and foam rolling comes in.

Foam rolling uses your own bodyweight to apply a localized pressure on a tight muscle, say your left Trapezius. The physical pressure literally softens up and releases the tight muscle fibers apart and the heat from the friction improves blood flow in that area. The effect is a feeling of looseness and relaxation.

Reduce Soreness (DOMS)
If you train hard enough, you most likely have experienced DOMS or delayed onset muscle soreness, which occur 1 to 2 days after. To prevent this, research has shown that foam rolling after your workout can reduce the pain experienced during this time frame. According to the Meta-analysis of the Effects of Foam Rolling on Performance and Recovery by Thimo Weiwelhove, there are analgesic effects from foam rolling mainly by mediating the body’s pain receptors. And because of the increased blood flow to the muscles, the byproducts causing the pain are cleared more efficiently thus reducing the pain from stiffness. More research is needed on these exact claims but the current findings and promising.

Improve Athletic Performance
The reduction of DOMS mentioned above is mainly achieved when foam rolling is done after a workout. To improve athletic performance, you need to foam roll prior. Foam rolling before a workout serves as a great warm up in addition to dynamic warm ups. It mechanically activates muscle fibers causing them to fire more efficiently during exercise. The improvement of range of motion also helps recruit more muscle fibers during the contraction phase.

Here’s my general recommendation on foam rolling done before and/or after a workout:

3 to 5 sets of 20 to 30 secs on a tight spot. Perform 3 to 5 days a week. Use a sweeping motion from the origin of the muscle, along the belly and into the insertion or spend a few seconds on one spot to release adhesions.

Check out this video for a demo of my foam rolling routine.

Conclusion
At a time when we are stuck at home for prolonged periods, we can feel tired, stiff and fatigued not only from over-exercising the same muscle groups, but also from worry and anxiety which shorten our breaths causing poor blood circulation. Foam rolling can help restore our balance and release tension physically and emotionally.

Although a great body of research regarding the mechanism foam rolling is still lacking, the current research is showing some positive effects on improving flexibility, reduction of soreness and improved athletic performance. There’s really nothing to lose and even more to gain and I suggest to try it out for yourself.

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