We see it on the whiteboard all the time: ‘Foam Roll’. In our box, it usually appears at the bottom of the list of things to do under the ‘Cool Down’ heading. Most CrossFitters know what foam rolling is, but do we all know exactly what it is doing for our bodies? How exactly does it help improve our performance?
Simply put, Foam Rolling is a method of kneading/massaging our fascia to prevent or rehabilitate impaired function of muscle tissue.
As CrossFitters we put our musculoskeletal system under a tremendous amount of stress, and this stress tends to manifest itself into differing levels of what the medical community refers to as ‘the ouchies’.
We have this really cool layer of soft tissue called ‘Fascia’ that surrounds and supports all of our muscle and connective tissue. Fascia is a fibrous tissue that runs parallel to the direction of pull of the muscle it surrounds, and it exists in multiple layers (semi graphic photo of fashia). It is disputed as to exactly how Fascia should be classified, but for our purposes we can look at superficial fascia and deep fascia. Superficial fascia blends in with the reticular layer of the skin while deep fascia blends in with and surrounds the muscles, bones, nerves and blood vessels of the body. More on this later.
So what happens when we post a new PR on our Fran time and we don’t foam roll? Well, the stress placed upon the fascia causes it to become inflamed. As we all know, inflammation is BAD. When we experience inflammation in the fascia the blood flow is restricted to the affected area, inhibiting our ability to recover from the damage. Inflamed soft tissues are stiff soft tissues, and this can limit your range of motion and cause most movement in the affected area to be very uncomfortable. This is bad news for future WoD’s!! If we don’t foam roll we are setting ourselves up to experience Somatic Dysfunction, which is the impaired or altered function of bodily structures.
Here’s how that happens: CrossFitter irritates fascia. CrossFitter doesn’t release the tension in the fascia. Fascia gets really upset with us and becomes even MORE irritated. Chronic irritation follows, causing our connective tissue to thicken. Thick connective tissue causes worse pain and irritation. Thick tissue results in reflexive muscle tension that causes more inflammation. By now the original problem area of fascia is probably ok, but a chain reaction of irritated tissue is spreading throughout the body.
So when we don’t foam roll, we are susceptible to a vicious cycle of ‘the ouchies’.
Ok, enough of the scary stuff. So know we know what fascia is and what happens when we don’t show it a little love. But how exactly to we turn our irritated fascia into happy-go-lucky fascia?
There are a few different ways we can go about this. There are two main ways to sooth you’re aching tissues; passive myofascial release (athlete stays relaxed) and active myofascial release (athlete provides resistance). Direct and indirect techniques are used in either category. But let’s not get to lost in the technical jargon; what’s important for us to understand is that fascia allows our muscles to glide over muscle and bone. So when the fascia gets irritated it tends to lose its ‘gliding’ properties and shifts to more of a ‘sticky and tacky’ function. Our goal in foam rolling is to pull the sticky and tacky elements apart in order to re-establish the beautiful, glorious glide. One important note here, NEVER foam roll an area that is swollen. Trust me on this, its bad.
Back to making our fascia happy. We want to regain our smooth, supple fascia. This means that we need to MOVE. Here’s where that superficial fascia and deep fascia piece mentioned earlier comes in to play. We need to get those layers of glued down fascia separated and moving again, and getting it done is pretty simple.
We need to do two things to get ourselves back in full working order: 1) apply pressure to the affected area and 2) Move the nearest joint into flexion (closing the angle of the limb to the body) and extension (opening the angle).
For example, try this next time you see ‘Foam Roll’ in the cool down;
- Foam Roll your quad by laying face down on the roller with it placed just below the hip under one leg.
- Put weight into the roller and point your toe (ankle extension).
- Hold the ankle extension and bring your heel up towards your butt (knee flexion).
- Go into full knee extension (leg straight) and roll down your quad a bit further.
- Repeat until you have rolled just above your knee.
What we’ve done here is tacked down the fascia and forced the muscle to move over the hard surface of the foam roller to break up and separate the different layers. This is the basic principle of foam rolling, and we can apply it to other methods. For example, for smaller areas like the front of your shins (where we experience shin splints) you can pull the slack out of the muscle with your hand (either towards the ankle or knee, whichever joint is nearer the affected area) and use a lacrosse ball to grind out the muscle tissue where it comes in contact with the shin. Again, we’ve tacked down the fascia and forced it move (in this case we moved the hard surface against the muscle instead of the other way around, but you get the idea).
Experiment with it. Find that piece of muscle that feels a little more tender than normal and hit it with a foam roller or lacrosse ball for 2-3 minutes. This will release the tension in the fascia, increase blood flow to the area and restore your range of motion. Release all that myofascial business and set yourself up for success tomorrow!!
Written by Deavon Black
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