By Steve Hannegan, DC, MS
Foam rolling is becoming more and more common with athletes. If you’re wondering what foam rolling even is you’re not alone! Foam rolling is a form of self-myofascial release or self-deep tissue massage. It’s simple to do and is a very low cost method of self-treatment.
Foam rolling started in the 1980s by a dance coach and over the past 30 years it has been adopted by individuals and teams across the world. For teams, it is a fast way to work basic soft tissue on multiple people and for individuals it is convenient and inexpensive.
So what does foam rolling actually do?
Foam rolling does several things that are beneficial. Because it is a form of self-myofascial release (SMR), it breaks up adhesions in, around, and between muscles known as muscle knots or trigger points, helping the muscle to contract and lengthen fully. Muscles are stacked on top of each other in the body and must be able to glide over one another for proper movement. Through activity or injury, adhesions can restrict this movement, which can lead to pain or injury over time, due to movement compensations. . The last thing it does is massage the muscle, pushing out waste products and allowing new nutrients to flow into the muscle by increasing the circulation.
What are the benefits?
There a lot of benefits to foam rolling and very few negatives. Most of the benefits are similar to massage, specifically deep tissue massage. Foam rolling increases circulation to the muscles, allowing the muscle to get the nutrients it needs faster while pushing out the waste. This causes decreased recovery time from activity because the building blocks needed for repair are brought in more quickly.
A big reason that athletes and teams like foam rolling is because research has shown that foam rolling stretches a muscle similarly to standard static stretching, but it does not reduce performance as static stretching has been proven to do. Also, when combined with static stretching, range of motion (ROM) has been shown to increase 9%-10% with still no performance deficits. Static stretching by itself only provides about a 6% increase in ROM with the performance loss. Because of these statistics athletes and teams have added foam rolling to warm-up routines.
Another great benefit of foam rolling is decreased delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) following rigorous activity. Nobody likes to be sore following a workout so this is great for anyone who wants to recover faster.
So when should you foam roll?
The largest benefit is seen when you roll before and after a workout. You get the increased range of motion for your workout and then decreased soreness afterwards. Replacing or adding foam rolling to your pre- and post-workout warm-up and cooldown routines for 10-15 minutes would be sufficient.
If you are trying to increase your range of motion due to tight muscles, rolling them several times a week along with static stretching has been shown to have long-term increases in range of motion in as little as four weeks.
If you wear high heels on a regular basis then foam rolling needs to be part of your routine. If nothing else, you should roll your calves several times a week to counter the shortening of the calf muscles caused by the heels. I have heard it feels really good at the end of the day and takes less than five minutes to complete.
The same goes for those of you who sit all day at work. There are several muscles that shorten and get tight and foam rolling them would help counteract these negative effects. For this you should roll pretty much your whole body but specifically the thighs (hamstrings, quads, adductors), glutes, and upper back.
How often should you roll?
This is certainly one of those things where more is NOT better. In most cases unless part of a warm-up and cooldown routine, you should give at least 24 hours between rolling the same areas. If you really work a sore area, you may need to give more time. Allowing time between treatments allows the muscles to heal. All forms of myofascial release cause micro damage to muscles that helps them heal, but doing it too much can cause increased damage and lead to injury.
How long should you roll?
A good rule of thumb when it comes to how long you should roll a muscle is around 30 seconds. For larger muscles, such as your quads or hamstrings, you could extend the treatment to 60 seconds. When it comes to focusing in on sore spots or a trigger point in the muscle, don’t spend more then 10 seconds working on it specifically. A trigger point is an area of increased damage, so you don’t want to overdo it.
What is the proper technique?
There are many different techniques out there but they are all fairly similar. There is no specific agreed upon technique, nor has one been shown in research to be more effective. What I like is keeping it simple, so I recommend one inch per second while rolling, which is pretty slow, but keeping it slow and controlled will allow the muscle to adapt under the roller as it moves across the muscle. I also like to recommend rolling the whole muscle to start then focusing in on specific areas. For larger muscles, you can also break the muscle down into halves or thirds after rolling the whole muscle a couple of times.
A big thing to remember is to keep proper form in the rest of your body while rolling. For example, when rolling the outside of your thigh you will be in a side plank, so make sure to stabilize the shoulder properly.
If you come across a very sore spot, it helps to roll around it before attempting to roll the specific area. If a specific area is significantly painful then you should avoid rolling directly over it.
There are some things to be cautious of when foam rolling. First, make sure to leave adequate time between self-treatments (24+ hours). Second, don’t spend too much time on a muscle; 30-60 seconds is generally adequate. Finally, if it hurts quite a bit when rolling over an area then you should avoid rolling it and work around it. This is a sign of a more significant injury and rolling directly over it could worsen it. If the same spot is very painful with rolling it may be time to get it looked at, as there may be an injury that requires treatment. Foam rolling should not be used as the sole treatment for an injury and may not be appropriate, depending on the injury.
What to look for in a foam roller?
There are many different type of foam rollers out there, so it can be confusing. The key things that separate foam rollers are the material and the size. I personally like simplicity, which I will explain.
Density is probably the most important factor when choosing a foam roller. There are high and low density foams and even PVC pipes covered in foam. The density will determine how intense the treatment will be. Low density will be less intense and more comfortable, while the PVC pipe will be the most intense.
Low density rollers are typically white and softer. There are two types of foam that can be used: closed cell and open cell. Closed cell foam will last longer, and open cell will break down more quickly. A low density roller will last from six months to a year, depending on usage. This is probably best for someone just starting out. I recommend the CanDo 30-2142 PE Foam Roller, Round, 6″ x 18″, White or the Cando 30-2100 White Round Foam Roller, 6″ Diameter x 36″ Length.
A high density foam roller is often black in color and much harder. The open and closed cell foam isn’t an issue here. These will last several years or longer. This is a good balance of longevity, comfort, and treatment. For high density rollers, I recommend the CanDo High Density Black Round 36″ Long x 6″ Diameter.
Composite rollers are often PVC wrapped in foam. These are most likely going to be the most aggressive when rolling and could be uncomfortable. Sometimes these are textured as well, which I am not a big fan of. The ridges are likely to continually contact the muscle in the same location each time, leading to an uneven rolling of the muscle and possibly over stressing these areas, while other areas that line up with the gaps don’t get any work. I prefer the smooth rollers for this reason.
The other options are handheld rollers and balls, such as a lacrosse ball. These are great for smaller muscles where a large foam roller just can’t get to. The handheld rollers are a little more portable and can still be used on the legs, but won’t work on the back or arms. They work well for the muscles of the neck where a foam roller would be ineffective. A lacrosse ball or a tennis ball are good for treating areas such as around the shoulder blade where you need more specific pressure but can’t reach with a handheld roller.
Length and diameter are other characteristics of foam rollers. The most common diameter is six inches, and lengths range from 12-36 inches. I find the best lengths are the 18- and 36-inch rollers. This is somewhat a personal preference, but 12-inch rollers seem too small if you want to do both legs at the same time. When it comes to diameter, I like the 6-inch rollers, but this is somewhat of a personal preference as well. The 6-inch provides a broader contact that is a little more comfortable. Some body types may work better with a narrower 4-inch roller.
Foam rolling is a great self-treatment for everyone to use to keep you moving and feeling great, and it’s portable, inexpensive and easy to do. Get rolling!