Foam rolling: what’s all the fuss about?!
In almost every commercial gym you will now find a selection of foam rollers to use in your workouts. Whilst these instruments have been used for years across professional sport, this introduction into the amateur fitness world has been fairly recent, with the increased use of foam rollers becoming more and more apparent.
If you are yet to jump on the foam rolling band wagon and introduce them into your fitness regime, or if you have but aren’t really sure of why you are doing it, you’re not alone; keep reading for an overview of just how beneficial this simple piece of equipment can be.
It is well known that stretching and proper warm ups and cool downs are important to keeping our muscles healthy, strong, and flexible (see our previous post for more information on this). It’s integral to our physio and sports massage treatment protocols to advise clients to use there as part of their ongoing rehabilitation.
However, these aren’t the only thing to get into a routine of completing before and after a workout. Foam rollers are light-weight, cylindrical objects comprised of dense foam, which are used to help relieve tension in sore muscles and help towards muscular recover. They can be purchased from most sport shops and online from sites such as Amazon.
Regular used of foam rollers can provide similar benefits to the robust Santi sports massage, only on a smaller scale. They can reduce inflammation and scar tissue whilst improving general circulation, mobility and flexibility. By introducing foam rolling into your workout on a regular basis, you will be helping to prepare your muscles for activity and can aid with recovery when completing post-workout.
Several scientific studies have investigated the merit of using foam rollers, discovering that rolling for one minute alone can improve range of motion, and that rolling after a tough workout can relieve soreness (or DOMS) over the following days!
What really is foam rolling?
Foam rolling is a form of myofascial release. Fascia or myofascial is the tissue which covers the muscles and bones in the body. When it is healthy, this tissue is relaxed and flexible. However, if it becomes damaged as a result of overtraining, stress or bad posture, fascia can become tight and inflamed leading to several problems including recurring injuries and headaches. When the connective tissues surrounding muscles become restricted, it is only natural for the movements of those muscles to also become restricted. Myofascial release is the term used to describe the application of pressure onto affected areas to improve movement and restore normal muscular function.
Deep tissue or sports massage are common forms of myofascial release. The “knots” many people refer to in muscles are really talking about myofascial trigger points. These are small fibres of hyper-tensed muscle which have clumped together. These points inhibit blood flow to the affected tissues and therefore can be quite painful. Trigger points start as micro-tears which become chronic through repetitive “tear and repair” cycles, which increases tension in the affected muscles.
Stretching muscles which have knots or trigger points will generally only address the healthy tissue. Trigger points tend to respond more effectively to direct pressure, with deep compression helping to break up adhesions formed between layers of muscles and their surroundings, which will in turn allow normal blood flow to resume and the restoration of healthy tissue to occur.
Massage is a great way to alleviate trigger points, however, if massage isn’t accessible, a foam roller is a great point of call to target these areas of tension.
Foam rolling has become increasingly popular over the past few years and for good reason! Rolling provides loads of benefits which will help you in your performance, recovery and even just in everyday life.
Here are a few which you can experience:
Improved joint range of motion and increased flexibility
Whilst stretching has previously been thought of as the “go-to” when it comes to flexibility and muscle tightness, newer research has shown that foam rolling before activity can also achieve these goals. By foam rolling, we are breaking down the tension in the fascia surrounding the bones and joints, allowing for increased flexibility. If you’re one of those people who aren’t very flexible, foam rolling can still help increase the range of motion available at your muscles but loosening and breaking up the fascia. This allows more elastic energy to build up in your muscles and therefore more force to be generated during muscular contraction.
Good circulation is vital for performance as blood is responsible for carrying oxygen around our body to our muscles, and removing waste products from our muscles. A decrease in circulation can be severely detrimental leading to numbness, reducing the ability to think clearly and weakening the immune system. Through foam rolling and other forms of myofascial release, tight areas where blood flow may become restricted can be broken up and circulation improved.
Foam rolling after exercise has been shown to reduce stress levels, with studies showing myofascial release to lower cortisol (your stress hormone). Myofascial release through foam rolling has been shown to calm down the nervous system as it targets specific acupressure points which are connected to the adrenals (this is partially why we can feel so relaxed after a deep tissue massage).
A key area of tension in most people is in the neck and back. This is common regardless of whether you are sat in an office all day or in the gym 24/7. This stress can lead to tension headaches and muscle spasms, both of which can be relieved through foam rolling to release tension in these areas.
Most people who have done some form of exercise in their life will probably have experienced DOMS (delayed onset of muscle soreness) at some point. DOMS is the pain and stiffness you can experience around 24-48 hours post exercise. Research has shown that foam rolling can not only reduce the pain you experience over the two days following exercise, but can also substantially reduce the chances of experiencing DOMS at all, showing that your cool down and recovery period after exercise really is worth completing!
Prevention is better than cure, and when it comes to injury this is especially the case. If you can prepare yourself for activity properly, then you seriously reduce the chance of experiencing muscle tears, ligament sprains etc. Foam rolling before and after exercise will prepare your body for exercise and allow it to recover more effectively.
Injury rehabilitation and scar tissue breakdown
Unfortunately, injuries do happen and when this happens, collagen is set down in the injured area to help in the healing process. This leads to a build-up of scar tissue which can end up being a bit painful. Massage and foam rolling will help ease this pain and allow the scar tissue set down to change, taking on a more efficient structure. Foam rolling also helps in this healing process by allowing healthy fascia to move into the spaces surrounding the scar tissue.
Recovery and removal of waste products
Waste products are formed in the muscle following muscular contraction. After a workout, it is therefore important to encourage these waste products to leave the muscles and the body to improve recovery and reduce DOMS and injury occurring. Foam rolling allows for lactic acid and carbon dioxide (the two main waste products) to be broken down post-exercise to speed up recovery and reduce the onset of those aches and pains the next day.
Common mistakes to avoid
Whilst foam rolling has a lot of benefits, as with any exercise or stretch that you complete, there are a few key mistakes to avoid in order to reap the rewards. Here are our top 5:
Roll directly where you feel pain
This is a key one. When we feel pain, we instinctively want to massage that exact area however this painful area may not be the cause of your pain at all. Often, areas of pain result from imbalances and tension elsewhere in the body and are a form of compensatory mechanism. A key example of this, and one which I repeatedly tell clients, is regarding the IT band (iliotibial band). This is a band of connective tissue which runs down the outside of your thigh. Foam rolling is often commonly prescribed for iliotibial band syndrome. I can’t count the number of times as a massage and injury therapist that I have had to explain to someone that directly massaging their ITB is going to be a whole lot of pain which will probably just cause even more discomfort. The ITB is not a pliable piece of tissue, and rolling it would have a similar effect to trying to stretch a piece of paper; it just won’t work. If you attempt to iron out areas of inflammation on the ITB it will just end up with more inflammation occurring at an already tender area. Instead, you should look to work around that area, focussing on the adjoining muscles such as gluteus maximus and tensor fasciae latae (TFL) plus the lateral quads and hamstrings.
Rolling too fast
Rolling may not be the most comfortable experience but the mindset of “getting it out of the way quickly” won’t do you any favours. By rolling too fast you are negating the movement as you won’t be eliminating any adhesions. By rolling more slowly, the superficial layers and muscles will have time to adapt to the compression. You will be able to feel where the tender spots are with the roller and can slow movements down over these areas with shorter rolls.
Spending too much time on “knots”
Often people are told that if you have knots, you should spend time working out that area with a foam roller. However, sustained pressure on one point is more likely to cause damage to tissues or nerves, causing bruising. Try not to spend more than 20 seconds on a tender spot before moving on. You can always go back to this area later when it has had a bit of time to recover so that you don’t overload the tissues. You can also manage the amount of body weight you apply to these areas by counter balancing with other body parts. There are numerous techniques which can be used to foam roll each body part so adapt yourself accordingly!
Foam rolling your lower back
Ok so this one will probably surprise a few people initially but it makes sense when you think about it. You should never directly foam roll your lower back. Why? Because at this part of you back, there aren’t large structures protecting the spine. The spinal muscles are likely to contract to protect the spine and you won’t be doing any good to them. You can roll your upper back because your shoulder blades and larger muscles are able to protect the spine but you should avoid rolling further than the end of your ribcage. Instead, to release your lower back, try targeting your glutes, piriformis (a muscle situated deep within the gluteal region), hip flexors and quads, as tightness in these areas often contribute to lower back pain.
Poor posture is a common cause of tightness in the back and shoulders, so it should come as no surprise that continuing this posture into your foam rolling will not be beneficial in the slightest. It is important to ensure you have correct form when completing any exercise, including foam rolling otherwise you can end up doing more harm than good. If you are unsure if you are completing a movement correctly, try doing it in the mirror so you can check your own form or ask someone for help (there are usually personal trainers around gyms who are happy to lend some advice), or feel free to come into Santi and ask one of our members of staff for advice!
Finally, onto the “how to” part! As with most things, you need to start slowly when introduction foam rolling into your workout regime and gradually increase the intensity over time. Try to incorporate foam rolling either before or after your workout a few times a week to start off with and progress from there.
It should also be said, that even if you don’t work out or do any form of physical activity, you can still experience the benefits of foam rolling. Tightness still builds up in the body, resulting from everyday activities such as sitting at a computer, carrying shopping and bending over to pick up children. Everyone will have some form of tension and can benefit from introducing foam rolling into their daily routine, (even if just for a couple of minutes in the ad break of your favourite tv show!)
There are so many different techniques that can be used to target different muscle groups. YouTube is a great place to start if you’re looking to learn or increase your repertoire when it comes to foam rolling, (although as always, make sure you are using correct technique when performing exercises).
To foam roll, apply moderate pressure to the specific muscle you are targeting using the roller and your bodyweight. Rolling movements should be slow, and when you find tight or painful areas, pause for several seconds (no more than 20s), trying to remain as relaxed as possible. The muscle should start to slowly release, and the pain begin to lessen.
If when you are rolling, the area you want to target is too painful, work on the surrounding areas (as with the ITB); this will gradually release pressure on the general area.
It is no secret that foam rolling is not always the most comfortable of experiences, especially when you have extremely tense areas in your body. However, it is important to remember that foam rolling is not an exercise in pain tolerance, it is a way of restoring muscular health.
So, there you have it! A brief introduction to foam rolling, it’s benefits, what to avoid and a quick how-to guide. If you would like any further information regarding foam rolling, please get in touch, or alternatively pop in and see us at Santi- our therapists will be happy to answer any queries you may have!