Guide to Foam Rolling
Every gym, studio and crossfit box has them. You’ll see them at your physiotherapist’s office and if you’re working in the industry no bag is complete without it. You’ll see people in some crazy positions trying to loosen their hard to get areas whilst attempting to maintain their equilibrium so they don’t fall flat on their face!
But what is a foam roller and what exactly are they doing with one?
Foam rollers are exactly that; cylindrical tubes, sometimes made completely of foam, whereas some are hollow with a layer or foam around them. Some are completely smooth and offer a consistent surface area, whereas others like the trigger point grid roller has varied surfaces to target the tissue in different ways.
Foam rollers vary in length, size and even density. Depending on the area being rolled, muscles targeted and experience of the user there are a few factors to consider but the end purpose is the same...to stretch and loosen tight, sore and restricted muscles and improve flexibility.
How do foam rollers work?
Myofascia is a fibrous tissue that surrounds all of the muscles in the body. Through overuse, injury or even by repetitive movement, fascia can lose its flexibility and fibrous adhesions ("knots") can form. The adhesions can impair how the muscles function and ca also cause pain.
Using a foam roller, you can use your own body weight to apply controlled pressure by slowly rolling along the length of the muscle (and the myofascia) being targeted. This encourages them to lengthen and loosen which reduces muscle soreness. The massaging motion also causes fresh oxygenated blood to be supplied, which promotes better circulation in and around the muscle cells.
Foam rolling can therefore improve recovery and as fibrous adhesions are broken down, this gives the muscle and the myofascia more flexibility to run smoothly and perform, resulting in improved flexibility.
Myofascial Release (MFR) is a technique that sports therapists and physiotherapists would use to improve how the muscles and fascia work and recover. Foam rolling is sometimes recommended as a way to achieve these results for yourself.
So, simply put.. by rolling over these tubes of foam you can have some kind of a massage and get some myofascial release on the go by yourself. Banging!
Benefits of foam rolling
The specific results of foam rolling vary from person to person, but as a result of regular foam rolling you can certainly expect some of the following:
Improved and a faster recovery
Noticeably increased flexibility and mobility within the muscles and joints
Better circulation to sore, tight muscles and fascia
Reduced muscle soreness after intense exercise
Preventing future injuries
Does foam rolling hurt?
Foam rolling can initially be uncomfortable, especially if you have little prior experience of it. I don’t find it uncomfortable anymore (but I am now used to having my hairs pulled out of my legs by my sports therapist, so it’s all relative I guess!!)
In any case, when starting off, go for a soft to medium density foam to get a feel for the exercise. Once you’re accustomed (or you've got your scouts foam rolling badge!) you can shift your way up the ranks and try a roller with different surfaces and designs.
How often should I foam roll?
Foam rolling can be performed before exercise to loosen tight muscles and improve mobility and prepare the muscles for a dynamic workout ahead, or at the end of the workout to increase flexibility, promote recovery and reduce muscle soreness. It can even be used on rest days to assist in recovery and even during workouts as a training aid/tool.
Just as you may stretch and work on mobility as part of your workout routine, you can foam roll day to day in the same way. Personally, I have added foam rolling to my usual workout routine as I feel it is an important part of my training.
How to use a foam roller
If you’ve got access to a foam roller and you’re ready to give it a go, here’s what you do with it.
Decide on the area or muscle group you wish to roll and place the foam roller in position under the muscle. For example, if you wanted to target the calf muscle, you would place the roller at the bottom of the ankle and gradually roll towards the back of the knee. Once you reach the back of the knee, you can repeat the process from the beginning.
Use smooth, controlled movements and take between 20-60 seconds depending on the length and size of the muscle. Initially, spend around 5 minutes on each area and gradually build up as you adapt.
Certain parts of the muscles may be more painful than others. You may find ‘knotty’ parts that cause more pain. These are often either fibrous adhesions that need a few rolls to smooth out or trigger points that cause tension and pain in the muscle. (More on trigger points in my other article)
By slightly changing the angle of the muscle being rolled, you can target different areas and find more trigger points, points of tension and adhesions.
Try and work methodically through the muscles or muscle areas. If you’re rolling your quadriceps on your left leg, follow by rolling your right quadricep so you can easily compare tightness, knots or any sore places of interest and and overall muscle condition.
Different body angles and positions can add more or less body weight so play around with your posture and positioning to find the right amount of pressure for you.
What type of foam roller should I buy? What are the options?
This totally depends on the individual using it and what they need it for. Foam rollers come in various sizes and firmness to suit all needs from beginner to advanced.
You can get foam rollers in a wide range of colours, to cater for even the most fashion conscious among us! (Including my personal favourite, camouflauge print!)
I prefer to have one that can fit in my gym bag for convenience so that I can foam roll in the gym or on the go, and I obviously look for a quality build so that my clients and I can use it every day and I have the confidence that it will not lose shape or its firmness.
As I’ve had some experience in using them, I prefer a firmer foam roller, but please remember that it’s not always the case that firmer is better. (Sometimes people will try and inflict lots of pain on themselves as a means of gauging the effectiveness and then they will almost ache like they would after an intense workout!)
Which is the best foam roller for beginners?
For people new to foam rolling or considering buying their first one; I would say you should consider a soft to medium density foam with a smooth surface so you can get to grips with the basics.
If and when you’re ready to take it up a notch, look for one with a firmer foam surface or a varying surface area to mimic the fingers or hands of a therapist. You could even also look for one that can used for trigger point therapy (see my article on trigger pointing)
Tips and general pointers
Always split the body into zones or work on muscle groups together bit by bit to ensure each area is getting the benefits.
Work from the feet up. Start at the ankles and aim to finish at the back.
Smooth breathing and relaxing as much as possible whilst rolling will help you control the tempo/speed of the roll. This will therefore loosen the muscles much more effectively.
Start off with a softer roller and then build up to a firmer foam. Once you’re more experienced, trigger point rolling and trigger point therapy with a grid roller or trigger point ball can be part of your recovery arsenal.
Be careful not to roll to promote pain, ensure that you’re rolling to improve recovery.
Maintain good posture and control throughout the exercise.
Progress your foam rolling as you would progress your exercise program. Look for new ways and use new tools to achieve the results you want. Increase time or frequency and make it a staple to your regime
Always ask a professional for help if you’re ever in doubt about performing foam rolling. Personal trainers and instructors at a gym should be happy to demo and teach you how to use a foam roller correctly.
Important points to consider
Be careful using a foam roller when rolling over sensitive areas such as the lower lumbar spine. This area should not be rolled, however when you have more experience or under advisement from a professional, you may find a trigger point ball better for this area.
The back of the neck is also very sensitive so watch the pressure, and joints should never be rolled over so stay clear of these.
When you’re recovering from an injury, it can be very difficult to judge for yourself and get the balance of recovery and mobility without causing further damage to an injured muscle or cells. So do be careful and seek advice from a professional.
Always seek further advice from your therapist if ever in doubt if foam rolling is suitable for you.