A few years ago foam rolling was only practiced by a small number of people (usually the sporting elite). However, foam rolling is everywhere with people preaching about it for recovery and injury prevention. So what is it? Foam rolling is a form of Self Myofascial Release which improves blood and lymphatic flow and prevents muscle over-activation. If you are foam rolling and not seeing the benefits, it could be down to your technique and frequency.
Why should I do it?
The list of benefits of foam rolling are endless. It has been found to;
• correct muscle imbalances
• relieve muscle soreness
• reduce stress on joints
• increase joint range
• improve recruitment of the correct muscles (1)
• Break down scar tissue.
• Trigger points!
When you strengthen or overuse your muscles they are realigned to get stronger and bigger as they are rebuilt. As muscles repair themselves, they become tighter and stronger to protect the underlying muscle tissue. This builds up tension and forms “knots” or “trigger points.” These can reduce the joint range of motion and can cause pain. So, when we foam roll, we are releasing these trigger points so that your muscles and subsequently joints can move more freely.
I stretch regularly though, is that enough?
No, because trigger points are localised and stretching has little to no effect on them and can even aggravate them. Imagine you have a knot in the middle of an elastic band or a rope. If you pull either side the knot will just get tighter. This is similar to what happens when you stretch a trigger point.
It has also been found that foam rolling results in improved flexibility compared to static stretching (2). This is because when you foam roll you are increasing blood flow to the muscle and increasing the intramuscular temperature, both which improves the pliability of the muscle.
There is no set prescription on when to roll. However, there are benefits to both before and after a workout, it depends on the individual and what their issue is:
• beneficial as part of your warm up due to the increase of blood flow and temperature it prepares your muscles for your activity.
• helps the recovery of your muscles, and research shows that it reduces the post workout ache (also known as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness or DOMS which accelerates the time that you can exercise again! So less pain and quicker return to exercise? Sold!
As I mentioned earlier, if you aren't seeing the effects of foam rolling then the problem lies in your technique. A lot of common mistakes I have seen include;
• Rolling in the wrong area
• You don't necessarily foam roll where your pain is. Particularly, if you have trigger points, they can refer pain to other areas. It’s more effective to roll on the trigger point itself instead of where you feel pain. This is very important if you who have tightness on the outside of your leg (also known as ITB). The ITB is a long band of connective tissue, when can become tight because of the muscles which attach to it. Therefore, it’s more effective to roll on the surrounding areas to reduce pain and tightness.
• Rolling too fast
• Rolling is more effective when you go at a slow pace. Think of when you get a good deep tissue massage; how effective would it feel if the therapist massaged at a quick pace instead of a slow pace?
• Incorrect pressure
• This a tricky one to get right as it depends on the type of muscle and how it is. Also, it depends on your pain tolerance. First case scenario is not applying enough pressure; once again think of a sports massage. You do feel more relief, the deeper the therapist goes. Second case scenario is applying too much pressure; as this can result in nerve irritation, bruising and increased inflammation.
Ok, how should it be done:
• When you get to a point that’s painful:
• Take a few breaths and stay on that point for about 30 secs before moving
• Regularly! Just as with any exercise once in a blue moon isn't going to make a massive difference on joint range. If you really want to see a difference, you need to be rolling at least 3 times a week for 2 mins on each muscle. (3)
1. Foam Rolling as a Recovery Tool after an Intense Bout of Physical Activity GRAHAM Z. MACDONALD DUANE C. BUTTON1 ERIC J. DRINKWATER1,2, and DAVID GEORGE BEHM1
2. Effect of Foam Rolling and Static Stretching on Passive Hip-Flexion Range of Motion Andrew R. Mohr, Blaine C. Long, and Carla L. Goad Journal of Sport Rehabilitation, 2014, 23, 296-299 http://dx.doi.org/10.1123/jsr.2013-0025
3. An Acute Bout of Self-Myofascial Release Increases Range of Motion Without a Subsequent Decrease in Muscle Activation or Force MacDonald, Graham Z.; Penney, Michael D.H.; Mullaley, Michelle E.; Cuconato, Amanda L.; Drake, Corey D.J.; Behm, David G.; Button, Duane CJournal of Strength & Conditioning Research: March 2013 - Volume 27 - Issue 3 - p 812–821 doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31825c2bc1