Roll Up Roll Up; A guide to foam rolling.

 Foam Rolling & Sports Massage

By Maria Kozikowska

 

What is a foam roller?


A foam roller is a dense foam cylinder that a person rolls their bodyweight over in order to apply pressure on the affected area of the body. Foam rolling is a technique commonly used by people of all fitness levels to increase flexibility, aid muscle recovery and maintain healthy tissue. It mimics the pressure a therapist applies on soft tissue; hence it can be regarded as a type of self-massage and is commonly referred to as ‘self myo-fascial release’.

 

How does foam rolling work?
 

Foam rolling works by applying pressure on the affected area in order to ‘break up’ any adhesions (or ‘knots’) within the tissue and, in turn, increase its flexibility. It also helps to alleviate the side effects of trigger points that might have developed in the soft tissue of the body. Trigger points are the areas within the muscle tissue that can cause pain in other parts of the body, especially when under pressure applied by a therapist. This is why when you foam roll your quadriceps, you might feel pain travelling up and down your lower limb. 

Does foam rolling work?


Yes, it does! The relatively limited research on foam rolling found its effects to be positive and supports the use of foam rollers in aiding flexibility (2,3,4). Being a professional therapist, I’ve seen foam rolling improving flexibility and helping muscle recovery every time my client took my advice to foam roll to their hearts and adhered to the foam rolling programme. The feedback from the runners, cyclists or weight-lifters that I’ve convinced to foam roll has always been very positive. It provides them with muscular pain relief, which helps them to cope well with their training regime and, most importantly, enjoy their sport, whilst maintaining healthy tissue and flexibility.

 Foam Roller

What foam roller should I use?


It depends on the condition of your soft tissue and pain threshold levels. To begin with, start using a relatively soft foam roller, which is less penetrating into the soft tissue than the dense ones.  Remember, however, that softer foam rollers can deform under pressure as you carry on using them. 
As you get used to the pressure of foam rolling, you can move on to a foam roller made of more rigid material that works deeper into the muscles. The more rigid foam rollers also deform less and keep their shape longer comparing to the softer ones.
There are also foam rollers with specially designed bumps on their circumference  – these will offer even more penetration, but you have to be prepared to endure the pain! 

 

How do I foam roll?


Make sure that you maintain a proper postural alignment when foam rolling. Roll slowly over the affected area and remember to relax the muscle that you work on as tensing it will prevent the foam roller from doing its job. As you roll over the painful areas, pause shortly until you feel the release and pain subsidizes.

How often do I foam roll?


For foam rolling to be effective, do it daily for 30 to 90 seconds over the affected area.

 

How do use a foam roller?


Make sure that you maintain a proper postural alignment when foam rolling. Roll slowly over the affected area and remember to relax the muscle that you work on as tensing it will prevent the foam roller from doing its job. As you roll over the painful areas, pause shortly until you feel the release and pain subsidizes.

How often do I foam roll?


For foam rolling to be effective, do it daily for 30 to 90 seconds over the affected area.

 Foam Rolling Massage

Is foam rolling as effective as receiving a sports massage?


Foam rolling is certainly an effective form of self-massaging. What is more, it is cost-effective and you can bring your foam roller with you whether you go. However, no foam roller will replace the experienced hands and eyes of your sports massage therapist. A fully qualified sports massage therapist will not only be able to assess your tissue with their touch skills, but also examine your posture and lifestyle. 
Remember that the source of the muscle tightness that you experience in one area of the body can be caused by a problem somewhere else in your body – a puzzle that a skillful therapist will endeavor to solve and a foam roller will help to address. And, don’t forget that certain areas of the body are not suitable or impossible to foam roll, such as your neck, and this where your therapist comes handy! 

Are there any contraindications to foam rolling? 


Yes. People with the following conditions should avoid foam rolling: osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis, blood clot, skin and vein infections, bleeding disorders, open wounds, healing fractures, advanced diabetes, hematoma, sutures, bursitis, anticoagulant therapy and congestive heart failure(1). 
If you’re unsure whether you can foam roll safely, ask your GP for advice.

All images used are from Physioroom.com
1.    Clark, M. A. and Lucett, S. C. (2011). ‘Corrective Exercise Training’. Wolters Kluwer: Baltimore. 
2.    Halperin, I., Aboodarda, S. J, Button, D. C, Anderson, L.L. and Behm, D. G. (2014). ‘Roller massager improves range of motion of plantar flexor muscles without subsequent decreases in force parameters’. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 9(1):92-102.
3.    Hanten, W. P., Olson, S. L., Butts, N. L and Nowicki, A. M. (2000). ‘Effectiveness of a Home Program of Ischemic Pressure Followed by Sustained Stretch for Treatment of Myofascial Trigger Points’. Phys Ther. 80:997-1003. 
4.    Sullivan, K. M., Silvey, D.B., Button, D. C. and Behm, D. G. (2013). ‘Roller-massager application to the hamstrings increases sit-and-reach range of motion within five to ten seconds without performance impairments’.  Int J Sports Phys Ther. 8(3):228-36.