Getting a sports massage is a brilliant way to recover after strenuous exercise. A therapist working your muscles can reduce pain, tightness and recovery time. But a massage from a qualified professional is expensive. This is where self massage comes in – in particular foam rolling, which you can do whenever and wherever it’s needed.
The technique of foam rolling is used by any number of athletes, from cyclists and weightlifters to runners and swimmers. Even if you’re not a competitive athlete, most modern day lifestyles result in long periods of sitting — whether that be at a desk or on a plane — leading to tight, shortened muscle tissue and subsequently poor joint mobility. Foam rolling can help to combat these problems, improving the range of motion of your muscles (1), relaxing muscle tissue, increasing blood flow and improving lymphatic drainage. And the good news is that foam rollers are inexpensive, portable and take up very little space — you can take your foam roller anywhere, to the office, on holiday or camping.
Muscle tissues are surrounded by a layer of protective connective tissue known as fascia.Essentially, foam rolling is a method of myofascial release. Overuse, misuse, inactivity or trauma typically causes muscle to become stuck to the fascia forming adhesions or trigger points. These adhesions limit the body’s blood flow (2) and reduce its range of motion and flexibility (3).
Picking a Roller
Foam rollers come in many different types – you will find that there are variations in size, densities and hardness. Some are made of dense foam, while others use soft materials. It’s best to choose a soft foam roller if you are new to foam rolling. In particular, avoid any foam roller which has large protrusions designed to increase the pressure placed on muscle tissue – though you can certainly try these out when you are completely comfortable with simple methods of foam rolling.
For the harder to reach areas, like the gluteal region, hip capsule or the sole of the foot, you’ll probably find it better to use a lacrosse ball (or a soft tennis ball) to start instead of a foam roller.
When to Roll?
There are mixed opinions from the experts about the optimum time to use your foam roller. Certainly in many CrossFit boxes and other gyms, foam rolling is commonly used as a warm up before exercise. However, there is a lot of good evidence to suggest that foam rolling does not improve athletic performance when used as a warm up (2) and it might even decrease power output when used in this way (3).
By contrast, there is a lot of evidence suggesting that performing foam rolling after a workout is highly beneficial. Research shows that foam rolling can lead to a reduction in recovery time – for example, reducing delayed onset muscle soreness (4), which means you can get back to exercising in a shorter time.
Even if you are not exercising daily, using a foam roller once a day can be used to perform everyday maintenance on your body, which will keep you healthy – in particular counteracting the shortening of muscles that occurs through extended periods sitting on chairs.
How to Roll
It’s difficult to provide precise detail of how to target particular muscle groups with your foam roller, but there are many resources available online. Kelly Starett’s website Mobility WOD is a great place to start if you are looking at targeting a specific region of your body. Here though are some top tips for foam rolling, which you should always keep in mind before starting any regime.
1. Go Slow
Though it may feel more comfortable, or less painful to quickly roll over a muscle, a brisk movement doesn’t give enough time for your nervous system to relax the muscle. The key to successful foam rolling is to go slowly. That way you will get maximum benefits.
2. Never Roll Across a Joint
One of the most important things to remember when foam rolling is to not to roll over a joint, as this can cause hyperextension of the joint, which can result in injury.
3. Keep Breathing
One of the most important aspects of successful foam rolling is good breathing. Though sometimes foam rolling can be rather painful (discomfort will reduce with frequency), holding your breath causes unnecessary muscle tension, making it harder to reach the trigger points that are causing problems.
4. Repetition is Key
The key to foam rolling success is repeat exposure. The more times you roll a particular muscle group, the less painful the experience and the more benefits you will see. Carry it out at least once or twice a week.
5. Don’t Roll Your Lower Back
Despite what you may see other people doing in the gym, rolling your lower back can do more harm than good. It creates a lot of potentially damaging pressure in and around the large lumbar discs and vertebrae of that part of your double-S shaped spine. The cervical (neck) and thoracic (upper back) are more flexible than your lower back, so it’s okay to roll these out, but you should only ever use very gentle pressure.
1. Junker, Daniel, and Thomas Stöggl. “The foam roll as a tool to improve hamstring flexibility.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research/National Strength & Conditioning Association (2015).
2. Healey, Kellie C., et al. “The effects of myofascial release with foam rolling on performance.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 28.1 (2014): 61-68.
3. Fama, Brian J., and David R. Bueti. “The acute effect of self-myofascial release on lower extremity plyometric performance.” (2011).
4. Pearcey, Gregory EP, et al. “Foam rolling for delayed-onset muscle soreness and recovery of dynamic performance measures.” Journal of Athletic Training 50.1 (2015): 5-13.