Foam rolling is a type of self-myofascial release (SMR), which is essentially self-massage of the fibrous connective tissue (fascia) beneath the skin that surrounds the muscles. Foam rolling has been around since the 1980s and has gained popularity in the athletic and rehabilitation worlds because of its effectiveness to ease tight muscles, recover quicker, and help prevent injury.
Whether you go to the gym regularly, work at a desk all day, or just have sore and achy muscles, foam rolling could be for you!
How Does Foam Rolling Work?
As you roll parts of your body across a foam roller, the pressure of your weight stretches and massages your muscles, breaking up and knots, tension or tightness. Great body parts to use a foam roller on are:
- Illiotibial (IT) bands
- Inner thighs
- Mid to upper back
Add foam rolling to your warm-up to improve range of motion and reduce muscle tension, and to your cool-down sessions to aid in your recovery and prevent soreness. Or use it to support certain yoga and Pilates moves, or even as a workout in and of itself.
Foam rolling should be done daily (as should stretching) for 10-20 minutes (or two to three sets of 30-60 seconds per muscle). The key is to go slow and steady, taking long breaths as you roll to help increase blood flow and oxygen to your muscles, which then sends a message to your muscles to relax.
Apply as much pressure with your body weight as feels comfortable, working around areas of pain or tension.
Benefits of Foam Rolling:
Foam rolling can:
- Help speed up recovery after a workout, relieving tight or sore muscles because of increased blood flow and oxygen, which aids in the body’s natural healing process
- Help reduce inflammation
- Reduce delayed-onset muscle soreness
- Increase your pressure pain threshold
- Help prevent injuries because your muscles are loosened up (tight muscles are more prone to injuries)
- Break up scar tissue – targeted pressure releases trigger points
- Help increase your flexibility (proven to work better if you also do separate stretching) because knots that restrict motion are broken up
- Correct muscle imbalances – foam rolling lengthens the muscles which helps avoid muscle restrictions during exercise
- Help you (and your muscles) relax and manage stress by stimulating sensory receptors which have been linked to reduced levels of stress hormones like cortisol, as well as relaxation of the nervous system
- Help reduce fatigue
- Help manage fibromyalgia symptoms
Does Foam Rolling Hurt?
Foam rolling can feel uncomfortable, but should “hurt so good”, not bad. If you have a particularly sensitive area of pain or tension, roll a few inches around it first. Or, apply a gentler pressure over pain points. You don’t want to make things worse by hitting a nerve or damaging the tissue.
A bit of discomfort is to be expected when rolling over tense muscles, but don’t spend too much time on the knots, and make sure to stop if you experience severe pain.
You should avoid rolling over your lower back and smaller joints like the elbows, knees and ankles. If you have a serious injury like a break or muscle tear, or a chronic condition like diabetes, check with your doctor or physiotherapist before foam rolling.
Foam rolling is a basic (and relatively cheap) tool that just might be the next best thing to a sports massage. There are many types of foam rollers out there, so book an appointment with a physiotherapist to find out which kind is best for you, and what exercises are best for your unique situation.