What is foam rolling and why should I do it? Part 1

Trigger Point


Simply put, foam rolling is self-massage. Instead of someone else using their hands or elbows to work on your muscles, you use gravity and a foam cylinder to put pressure on your sore and aching tissues. Unfortunately, the definition is the easy part, but the interesting part, the important part, is understanding how it works, figuring out when should you do it, and if it matters how you do it.

Let’s start with describing how foam rolling works: In some ways this is also a simple answer – we don’t know yet. The amount of quality research on foam rolling is small, but it is definitely growing. As such, there are a large number of theories as to how foam rolling may work and it is likely that there is more than one mechanism at play. There is no way that I could discuss all of the proposed mechanisms for how foam rolling works, and even if I tried there are multiple people that have already done it better than I can, so instead I will discuss a few of the mechanism that I find plausible.

1. The power of positive thinking.

Some people will refer to this as the placebo effect, but to deny that is an effect is short-sighted. When it comes to quantifying pain and range of motion (or tolerance to stretch if you will) our expectations of the amount of pain that we should feel can have a significant effect on the amount of pain that we do feel. To put it another way- when we spend the time to work on a sore muscle and we do something for it that we believe will reduce the pain we are feeling, we often achieve the desired results. Regardless of the technique we use, whether it is foam rolling, meditation, kinesiology tape or Mr. Miyagi’s new foot powder, believing that we are doing something beneficial is in itself actually beneficial. (As long as the thing we are doing is not innately harmful. I.e. regardless of your intentions, walking on broken glass or drinking motor oil is not likely to be beneficial for anyone.)

2. Proprioceptive stimulation.

One of the more popular mechanisms explaining the effects of foam rolling is that the pressure exerted by the foam roller stimulates sensory structures in the muscle/fascia/skin which leads to changes in the resting tone of the muscles. There are lots of things that can stimulate proprioceptors (their job is to monitor and assess movement, position, pressure, tension etc.) so the idea that the foam roller could be influencing those receptors make sense, as would stretching or moving in general. The sustained pressure often associated with foam rolling is a slightly different sensory input than typical stretching or dynamic warm-ups and could potentially lead to a different effect. All in all, it seems reasonable that stimulating proprioceptors could be part of the mechanism by which foam rolling works.

3. Diffuse noxious inhibitory control (DNIC).

DNIC is a really complex sounding way to describe a method by which your brain lowers the amount of pain you feel. To put it technically, your brain is receiving a ridiculous amount of sensory data all of the time and not all of that information is treated equally. Much like a recent court case involving internet service providers, your brain has the right to adjust the bandwidth given to certain information.  So in the case of foam rolling, when you put pressure on that tender spot in your calf it sends pain signals to your brain. Your brain looks at the cry of pain along with all the other information coming from that same area that says “there is nothing wrong here.” Your brain then compares that information and in order to justify the differences it turns down the volume of the pain receptors. Suddenly when you step into that lunge that hurt a few minutes ago, it does not hurt anymore. Not because you changed anything in your leg, but because the pain receptors are not getting as much bandwidth as before and the cry of pain is diminished. That is a simplified and incomplete explanation of a complex process. Regardless, it is a pretty cool effect, as well as an effect that seems to coincide well with the temporary nature of most of the benefits of foam rolling.


As I said at the beginning of this post these are just a few of the proposed mechanisms for how foam rolling might work. In the second and final portion of this post on foam rolling we will discuss what some of the effects of foam rolling are and the practical applications of how and when you should use your foam roll to get the maximum benefit.


If you want to read aboutfoam rolling theories in a little more detail here is a link to a post by Todd Hargrove on the same topic.

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