Author: Ben Mardis
Foam rolling’s recent rise in popularity is in response to the desire for improved muscle recovery and flexibility in trained individuals, like you. Now that the spotlight is on it, how do you get started? Let’s start with how you actually foam roll and then we can talk about its benefits.
Kuhland begins this conversation nicely by describing our need for foam rolling. “[Foam rolling] provides the user the ability to control the healing and recovery process by applying pressure in precise locations, because only you can feel exactly what is happening5.” The truth of the matter is that he is correct, the main concept of rolling out is that you utilize your bodyweight and the foam roller to find “trigger points” in your muscles5. Often, these trigger points are described as little balls of pain, or what feels like a hill on the muscle that the foam roller must climb over. First, you take the cylindrical foam roller and rest the sore point on top (beginning in the furthest extremities and then moving towards your core). Next, you roll over top the sore spot, pausing on the point of tenderness to release that tension. It is important to spend some time on this step to alleviate the soreness you are feeling. The recommendation is that you spend a short period of time (maybe 60-90 seconds) working the roller into each muscle that is sore. Finally, move along to the next sore spot closer to your core. While there is the potential to see immediate improvements in flexibility and soreness levels1, ten to twenty minutes of foam rolling on a regular basis was shown to bring about lasting improvements in trained individuals. Always remember, the more consistent you are, the greater the range of motion you will have in your muscles while exercising and the less sore they will be following your workout.
As you begin to dive into the world of foam rolling, here is a really good resource that provides you a great beginner’s guide to foam rolling! This website will give you a good description of a basic warm up and cool down routine3 to follow on the days that you work out.
Now that you know how to roll out, lets focus on what it does to your flexibility and your body’s ability to recover from exercise.
One of the biggest arguments for the use of foam rolling is its ability to improve flexibility. Connective tissue, known as fascia, surrounds all of the muscle throughout the body. When it becomes irritated, from sitting at a desk with poor posture, driving for long periods of time, mowing the lawn, and other daily activities, the fascia turns from its soft, gel-like structure into a firm and tough band of tissue1,4. This causes a reduction in muscular range of motion and alters the biomechanics of muscle movement1,4. One of the immediate outcomes of foam rolling is an increase in range of motion1,2, which is why it is so often utilized as a warm up for exercise.
When applying pressure onto specific areas via a foam roller, the tough fascia and scar tissue in your muscles are broken down, allowing for a return of optimal function1. This acute release of stress in the muscle increases our ability to exercise at our best by restoring the muscle length – tension relationship, an important factor in optimal performance1,4. This relationship can be described as a sweet spot in the length of muscle fibers that a muscle has to reach in order to develop and produce a maximal force output.
When our muscles become tight, such as our hip flexors when we remain seated for long periods of time, our body tries to compensate by utilizing different muscles to perform tasks. This creates a muscle strength imbalance that is only augmented during exercise. Foam rolling not only improves flexibility, but also allows the body to correct muscle imbalances caused by daily muscle compensations1,5. Once you have broken down some of the scar tissue built-up from multiple microtraumas experienced during exercise and corrected for muscle imbalances, you can be confident that your ability to train for longer durations with reduced risk of injury and discomfort will be increased4. Consistent usage of a foam roller may enhance the performance of muscles during exercise2.
You know that soreness that develops the day after you lift? Or that feeling when you have to climb a few flights of stairs after leg-day at the gym? That feeling is actually your muscles experiencing what is called delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). DOMS impairs muscle functioning and reduces the available range of motion you have to climb those stairs. Anatomically, DOMS is causing microtraumas and microtears in your muscles4,7. Typically, with proper nutrition, the muscle heals over the following few days, growing stronger for the next round of squats. But what if you have a competition in a couple days? You cannot afford to be sore.
As a recovery tool, foam rolling may alleviate the intensity and duration of this pain. Many studies have shown that the main effect of foam rolling is a reduction in muscle soreness in the days following intense exercise1,4,5,6,7. At its core, foam rolling encourages quicker muscle recovery2. It works to repair connective tissue damage, allows for more efficient muscle activation by maintaining the neural activity within muscles, encourages range of motion through passive and dynamic movements, and most importantly it prepares you for your next dynamic performance 6,7. Foam rolling, if utilized consistently, may increase performance by allowing for a greater, more efficient muscle recovery.
Foam rolling is an extremely effective means for increasing your flexibility, performance, and enhancing your muscle recovery. The visible effects are immediate1, but long lasting if you routinely roll out while training. In today’s society, you cannot afford to miss out on an opportunity to become a better, more efficient runner, cyclist, weight lifter, swimmer, or recreational fitness enthusiast, so by beginning your foam rolling routine today, you are preparing yourself to be in better physical condition tomorrow!
1 Bushell, J. E., Dawson, S. M., & Webster, M. M. (2015). Clinical relevance of foam rolling on hip extension angle in a functional lunge position. J Strength Cond Res 29(9), 2397-2403.
2 Cheatham, S. W., Kolber, M. J., Cain, M., & Lee, M. (2015). The effects of self-myofascial release using a foam roll or roller massager on joint range of motion, muscle recovery, and performance: A systematic review. The International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 10(6), 827-838.
3 Hamilton, M. (2018). How to use a foam roller to warm up and cool down. Retrieved from: https://www.runnersworld.com/health-injuries/a20812623/how-to-use-a-foam-roller-0/
4 Healey, K. C., Hatfield, D. L., Blandpied, P., Dorfman, L. R., & Riebe, D. (2014). The effects of myofascial release with foam rolling on performance. J Strength Cond Res, 28(1), 61-68.
5 Kuhland, J. What is a foam roller, how do I use it, and why does it hurt? Retrieved from: https://breakingmuscle.com/fitness/what-is-a-foam-roller-how-do-i-use-it-and-why-does-it-hurt
6 Macdonald, G. Z., Button, D. C., Drinkwater, E. J., & Behm, D. G. (2014). Foam rolling as a recovery tool after an intense bout of physical activity. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc., 46(1), 131-142.
7 Pearcey, G. E. P., Bradbury-Squires, D. J., Kawamoto, J. E., Behm, D. G., & Button, D. C. (2015). Foam rolling for delayed-onset muscle soreness and recovery of dynamic performance measures. Journal of Athletic Training, 50(1), 5-13.