Contrary to their innocent appearance foam rollers are actually quite powerful tools of self-myofascial release — otherwise known as self-massage — when used the right way. They can help flexibility, boost circulation, reduce soreness, increase range of motion, and remove lactic acid to speed workout recovery. This exercise can be done pre or post-workout, or even at home on off-days
Foam rolling: That hurts-so-good muscle recovery must-do that you either hate to love or love to hate. No matter how you feel about it, you've probably turned to a foam roller a time or two to relieve some nagging muscle pain that just won't go away.
Understanding the benefits of foam rolling may be a deciding factor that encourages you to fully embrace your foam roller for the helpful mobility tool it is once and for all. It can also help inform how and when you use a foam roller and the best ways to improve the effectiveness of your foam rolling technique and routine.
What Is a Foam Roller?
A foam roller is a self-myofascial release (SMR) tool used to release tension in and increase the mobility of your muscles, fascia, and other connective tissue surrounding a joint. Although there are various shapes and sizes available these days, most foam rollers are cylindrical in shape with a length of one to four feet and a diameter of 5 to 10 inches. A foam roller may be hollow or solid and is typically constructed from dense foam or some sort of foam- or rubber-covered rigid plastic. The foam roller may be smooth or textured with various ridges and bumps.
How Does Foam Rolling Work?
Contrary to popular belief, foam rolling doesn’t physically break up knots in muscles; rather, it stimulates the nervous system to relax tension in the surrounding tissues. Essentially, foam rolling works by sending input to your nervous system via receptors in your muscles, tendons, and fascia. As you roll over these soft tissues, the receptors send signals to the spinal cord, and the parasympathetic nervous system responds by sending signals back to the muscles or tissues to relax. In doing so, foam rolling increases the range of motion in muscles and tendons and around joints.
Foam rolling also increases blood flow, aiding the delivery of oxygen and other nutrients to muscles, which can improve the effectiveness of a warmup routine and enhance recovery and removal of metabolic waste products accumulated in muscles after exercise.
Benefits of Foam Rolling
Foam rolling can be an effective manual therapy tool for both warming up tissues and preparing the body for a workout as well as aiding recovery after exercise
Increases Range of Motion
Foam rolling before a workout can reduce stiffness and help your body feel more limber. As mentioned, foam rolling signals the parasympathetic nervous system to relax the muscles and tendons you are rolling. As these tissues relax, the fibres move from a contracted state to an elongated state. This can increase the range of motion around the joint the muscles control, improving mobility and optimizing motion.
Foam rolling increases blood flow to the tissues you work with the foam roller. This can be especially beneficial for fascial, tendons, and ligaments, which have relatively little blood flow under normal circumstances. Because blood carries oxygen, glucose, and other nutrients muscles and connective tissues need to contract and repair, increasing blood flow enhances the delivery of vital nutrients and can maximize function and recovery.
If you have an injury or are sore after a workout, foam rolling can help encourage the removal of inflammatory waste products, flushing these tissues with fresh nutrients and circulating out toxins.
Warm Up Muscles
The friction generated by rolling over your tissues creates heat that warms up muscles, tendons, fascia, and other connective tissues. Warm tissues are more pliable and less likely to get injured, so adding foam rolling to your pre-workout routine can be an important step in mitigating the risk of injury, especially if you’ve been sedentary for a few hours prior to your workout.
Reduce Muscle Soreness
Research has found that foam rolling after a hard workout can decrease the intensity of delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS), the achy pain that can creep up 24-48 hours after intense exercise. Foam rolling helps prevent muscle adhesions and enhances the circulation of oxygenated blood to depleted muscles after exercise. In this way, foam rolling can reduce inflammation and soreness in and around muscles and joints.
If you have pain due to stiffness, foam rolling can provide the stimulus your muscles need to relax, effectively easing pain. Research has demonstrated an improvement in reported back pain severity as well as chronic widespread pain for fibromyalgia sufferers with regular foam rolling.
Should I be sore during/after foam rolling?
You may be sore the next day. It should feel as if your muscles have been worked/released, however you should not push yourself to the point of excessive soreness.
Pain in a specific area while foam rolling is typically a sign that your muscle or tissue is tight and needs some TLC. Ease into painful spots by starting in the areas right around it and sensitivity should decrease fairly quickly, but, if it's too much to bear, don't continue!!
If you're unusually sore the day after foam rolling, you may have foam rolled too long or too eagerly/aggressively or incorrectly. Make sure you aren't foam rolling a particular muscle group longer than two minutes, which may mean setting a timer to help keep you from overdoing! Don’t underestimate the efficiency of the foam roller – especially if a first time user.
Stretching (and myofascial work such as foam rolling) can lead to some DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness).
Dos and don’ts:
DO research different foam rollers before deciding which one is best for you. If you’re rolling your upper back and shoulders, a longer roller ensures you won’t fall off the ends. For single-arm and single-leg rolling, a shorter roller should suffice. A shorter roller is also more convenient to take with you to work or the gym. The density also varies among foam rollers; softer rollers are perfect for beginners, though their lifespan isn’t as long as the denser alternatives.
DO expect a little bit of pain. We’ll be honest; foam rolling hurts a bit. But that’s normal when you’re applying firm pressure directly to a tight or sore muscle. It should be a “good hurt,” though—never unbearable, sharp pain, just a little bit uncomfortable. When you are done with your foam-rolling session, the pain should feel much better. (If a sore area is too painful for even a little pressure, try rolling on the surrounding area first, to help loosen things up.)
DON’T roll directly on a joint or a bone.
DO seek the advice of a professional if you have neck pain; the neck is too sensitive for foam rolling, and you could cause yourself serious injury.
DON’T roll your lower back; this will cause the spine to contract in an effort to protect the spine. For lower back pain, try a tennis or lacrosse ball instead, or ask a professional.
DO roll slowly—no more than one inch per second. Never roll in a fast back-and-forth motion.
DO roll over each trigger point 5-10 times, spending no more than 20-30 seconds on each tender spot.
DON’T roll to the point of excessive soreness; it’s not supposed to be an exercise in pain tolerance. Placing too much sustained pressure on one body part can result in inflamation.
DO wait 24-48 hours between foam-rolling sessions. Your body needs time to recover. Stay hydrated, eat healthy foods and get enough rest between sessions.
How to Choose a Foam Roller
There are different types of foam rollers with different benefits.
Smooth foam rollers: These foam rollers are basic cylinders, generally constructed from dense foam. They are less intense than textured foam rollers and provide even pressure.
Textured foam rollers: The bumps and ridges on textured foam rollers provide concentrated pressure to more precisely and aggressively work knots and tight spots in tissues.
Don’t be discouraged - when you first begin foam rolling it is ouch!! Once your body becomes adapted and loose it won't feel so bad. Some days it will feel worse than others.