Why Does Foam Rolling Feel So Good? (Explained)


I’ve discovered foam rolling after my first deep tissue massage where the therapist kindly advised me that I should start practicing it because my muscles are brutally tight. So I did. And immediately fall in love with this tool. In this article, I will explain why does foam rolling feels so good?

In general, foam rolling feels so good because it triggers the parasympathetic response that relaxed the body. Any form of soft tissue work (foam rolling or massage) relieves muscle tension and helps us to turn “off” by down-regulating our fight or flight mode.

That’s why it just feels so good and relaxing. But not everyone seems to get the same response. There are multiple factors that influence how you feel during or after foam rolling.

Does Foam Rolling Make You Feel Good?

Foam rolling does feel good because it down-regulates the sympathetic nervous system and up-regulates the parasympathetic response. That switch decreases the cortisol levels, reduces pain, and increases feel-good hormones, which all result in a relaxation response.

Here’s how it works.

Our body has a build-in autonomic response, depending on the situation. If you’re in the African savannah chased by the lion, you will immediately notice:

  • your heart rate goes up
  • your eyes dilate
  • your sweat glands wake up
  • your alertness kicks in
  • your pain decreases
  • and your blood flows to your muscles so you can run as fast as possible

That’s your sympathetic response, also called fight or flight mode. It is always activated in situations of stress, danger, or worries. It is also active when you exercise or make love with your partner.

On the other hand, when you’re using a foam roller, that’s when you switch off your sympathetic response, and your parasympathetic response kicks in. It’s also called rest and digest mode. It completely relaxes and down-regulates your body.

  • your heart rate slows down
  • you feel calmer
  • your digestion kicks in
  • and you’re probably ready for a nap

That is your chill pill. You feel completely relaxed and your body is flooded with feel-good hormones. That’s why it feels so good.

Here are some of the positive changes that happen during the foam rolling.

Related article: Foam Rolling: Why it hurts & How to make it less painful

Foam Rolling Increases Oxytocin Levels

One of the reasons why foam rolling feels so good is the release of the hormone called oxytocin. Oxytocin, also called the love hormone, is released once the sympathetic nervous system shuts down.

According to Dr.Etsuro Ito from Waseda University in Tokyo “Oxytocin has been thought to relieve the pain of joint and muscle.” (source) A similar response of oxytocin occurs also during the massage, after touching, hugging, kissing, or social interactions.

In fact, several research papers have shown that simple acts of daily hugging with friends and family can significantly improve relationships and individual well-being.

Sense of well-being, social bonding, and positive emotional behaviors or mood are all linked to oxytocin levels. It has been shown that oxytocin relieves pain, lowers stress, and has restorative effects (source).

Foam Rolling Increases Endorphin Levels

If you’re ever heard the term “runners’ high”, which’s strictly related to endorphins. After long-distance running (when the sympathetic system shut-down) the activation of parasympathetic signals activates endorphin that suppresses the stress hormone levels and triggers states of pleasure (source).

Regular foam rolling activates the parasympathetic response and triggers the endorphins release. The primary function of endorphins is to block pain. In fact, endorphins are 18 to 33 times more potent than morphine (source).

The similar effect you have after an acupuncture treatment. Acupuncture has a variety of applications, but the most powerful and most known is its ability to treat acute and chronic pain.

If you wanna learn more about acupuncture, check out my podcast episode where I interview my good friend Dr. Ricardo Ferreira from Portugal.

Related article: How Often Should You Foam Roll? 

Foam Rolling Increases Serotonin

Serotonin is another part of the parasympathetic response. Foam rolling doesn’t immediately release serotonin, but the down-regulation of the fight or flight response does.

During high stress, there is an elevated concentration of tryptophan brain. Tryptophan is an amino acid, the precursor of serotonin. And once the stress signals are gone, there is a significant increase in serotonin levels (source).

As you know, serotonin regulates several processes including:

  • mood
  • perception
  • reward center
  • anger
  • aggression
  • appetite
  • memory
  • sleep
  • sexuality
  • attention
  • bowel motility

 In fact, it is difficult to find a human behavior or process that is not somehow regulated by serotonin.

Foam Rolling Decreases DOMS

DOMS (deleted onset muscle soreness) is just a fancy name for describing muscle fatigue and tension after exercise. DOMS are basically the inflammatory response of muscle work. Several compounds like C-reactive protein and myoglobin are released during the tough workout.

People who just getting started with exercise don’t have an optimal rate of clearance of those compounds. That’s why it feels sore after exercise.

Physically active people, who already have an experience and fitness level have also a high clearance of those compounds from the body. So they don’t feel as sore as before.

So foam rolling will make you feel good by improving the lymphatic system and purifying all those inflammatory chemicals from the body.

After foam rolling, there is a significant reduction in post-exercise fatigue and DOMS. The reduced feeling of fatigue improves the sense of well-being and enhances the overall mood (source).

Foam Rolling Improves Mobility And Range Of Motion

It’s not a secret that good quality of life is directly related to the quality of our movement. Foam rolling has been studied for the last few years excessively, and it has been shown to improve flexibility and mobility, even better than regular stretching (source).

If you wanna go one step further, combine two together. I’ve spent years working on cruise ships helping people get back on their feet. And the biggest challenge I’ve seen is that people need to see the change right away. They need to know something is working.

Otherwise, they not gonna do it.

(Btw that’s why dieting feels so hard because you don’t get that instant feedback. To see any change you have to wait for months).

With mobility is different. You see results on day one. And simple stretches and foam rolling drills are enough for the patient to feel much better.

Such a change in daily mobility like being able to put on the bra or tie up the shoes can significantly improve quality of life. Especially if you start doing things that you couldn’t do for many years.

That’s why foam rolling is such a good mobility tool because it easy to use and it gives you that immediate response.

Related article: 9 Easy Ways To Roll Out Sore Muscles Without a Roller

Foam Rolling Improves Proprioception

Foam rolling, as a method of self-myofascial release, has been shown to improve body proprioception ability. Proprioception is basically nothing else than sensing in space.

For example, being able to touch your nose or ears with the eyes closed or keep your back straight while doing a deadlift. Some people have their back so stiff from being exposed to insufficient positions for years or even decades that even when I say “keep your back straight”, “engage your core” they understand what I say, but they cannot do it.

They have poor self-awareness or body awareness. They don’t have enough proprioceptive input on a daily basis that connects muscles and the brain.

Doing regular foam rolling activates those proprioceptive receptors and helps with restoring the optimal sense of body position in the space (source).

As you can see, foam rolling goes way beyond being a simple warm-up tool. Because of the parasympathetic response, it has a laundry list of practical applications.

  • Warm-up
  • Cooldown
  • Mobility
  • Pain release
  • Diagnostic tool
  • Proprioception

To learn more about how to use foam roller check out my related article.

Related article: Can You Foam Roll Too Much

But not everyone loves the foam roller. Some people actually notice a greater discomfort than pleasure.

Conclusion

Chances are you’ve seen people using a foam roller as a warm-up tool. In my gym foam rollers are very popular, especially around the running community. People spend few minutes on the roller before hitting the treadmill.

The point of foam rolling is to apply the short and intermittent mechanical tension on the soft tissue. This process triggers the muscle to decrease stiffness, improves muscular perfusion and leads to a better range of motion, and increased the sense of well-being.

That’s why it feels so good.

Michal Sieroslawski

Michal is an exercise physiologist (MSc), nutrition coach, Ashtanga teacher, and fitness blogger. He shares his successes and failures to help busy men and women squash down 20, 50, or even 100 pounds of fat without leaving their home.

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