To roll or not to roll – a rather popular question. I wanted to look at some of the most recent research to find out when foam rolling can work, what the most effective methods are and why sometimes it doesn’t seem to work at all.
What foam rolling is good for:
Just before you compete, to improve flexibility. Why? Because clinical studies show that the effects tend not to last for long – around 10 minutes. To have a more lasting effect on your flexibility, you could combine foam rolling with other techniques. For instance, using a stationary bike as an active warm up before a workout is more effective than rolling alone, however when combined together (now there’s an image!) with using the bike and quick use of the roller on your hamstrings, the flexibility in hamstrings can last more than 30 minutes (1).
We’ve all been there, having had a tough workout or the first time back after a break, our muscles spend a day or two reminding us with some delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS for short). There’s strong evidence that foam rolling and massage, can help to reduce muscle soreness making those days after a hard workout or training session a bit comfier (2).
However, it’s important to know that while foam rolling has some benefits, there are plenty of facts that should also be taken in to consideration before seeing it as a cure-all.
What foam rolling can do
Reduce muscle tightness by stimulating pressure receptors in the nervous system which can help to get your stretch back on track.
Using rolling sessions to target specific muscles for a few minutes will help stimulate the active pump we have in our muscles to help clear out inflammation and lymphatic fluid that may have pooled.
Foam rolling is best performed after training or the following day. For most of us, we don’t need to use it as part of our pre-workout prep! If you have functional movement and don’t present with pain from stiffness, there’s little to no need for hitting the foam roller before training. Instead use exercises like dynamic stretching (4) which are more beneficial and have fewer side effects.
A good time when foam rolling can be useful as part of your warm-up is if there’s an obvious flexibility issue present. It can be useful to have the dysfunction assessed and diagnosed, so you know that using the roller as part of your plan of action should help to improve the issue(s).
When we try to increase our physical activity levels, we can experience significant levels of local inflammation, DOMs, and increased neurological activity (tone) in the tissues. Therefore it makes more sense to target soft tissues that you trained earlier in the day or the day before.
Foam rolling helps move blood around into other local areas, allowing nutrient exchange and waste to be cleared out.
And what foam rolling can’t do
Foam rolling won’t directly boost performance all on its own, but while it won’t do much for your strength, endurance, flexibility, or mobility, it’s a great add-on to stretching and exercise.
Foam rolling doesn’t usually break up scar tissue in soft tissues (muscles) as soft tissues in the body aren’t actually all that soft, but are strong structures that are very difficult to mechanically change in shape or structure. If you consider if tissues were able to be easily manipulated, every time you smashed a hard workout or we applied an external pressure, the tissues would sustain mechanical damage such as a tear.
While foam rolling has its place, our flexibility has a lot to do with our joints as well the muscles we can roll.
I’m having pain shooting down the back of my leg – can rolling help?
Our nervous system runs throughout our body, starting from our brain and running to our toes and fingers. We want those nerves sliding freely as we move, but if a nerve gets stuck, it will stretch instead which causes increased neural tension. The chunky sciatic nerve (that runs down the back of your leg) often suffers increased neural tension when we have issues in our lower back or tight glute muscles. Not being a fan of being stretched, it increases the risk of us injuring the muscles supplied by the nerve that’s stuck. For instance, increased tension of the sciatic nerve can lead to hamstring and calf injuries.
If you’re having sciatic pain, it’s worth getting yourself checked out by a good Physiotherapist or sports clinician, especially if you struggle with muscle tightness that doesn’t improve with time or specific exercises. Rolling and sports massage can help improve your flexibility initially to help release some of the neural tension you’re experiencing, but it is unlikely to be the cure-all that you might expect. This is something that we can easily check via video call, if you want to consult our physio online.
What about rolling over an injury that’s feeling tight?
During the first couple of weeks of an injury, it’s likely the soft tissue is still weak and healing. Rolling should be avoided as it’ll likely make it worse and any inflammation can be stirred up, taking longer to heal. The muscle tightness you’re feeling should slowly go away by itself as the injury improves, but once it’s not painful to touch with moderate pressure, using the roller or a massage can help you with that too.
Foam rolling tips
Avoid rolling directly on ligaments (which connect bones together), as this can cause damage – these areas don’t have vascular tissue, so they don’t heal well. Also, avoid rolling directly over bone. Instead, work on areas of dense muscle like the glutes, hamstrings (on the back of your thighs) or calves, where the muscles are thicker.
Wherever you use the foam roller, start with light pressure. There’s no place for the “no pain, no gain” approach in using it. If it feels seriously uncomfortable or painful, it’s a warning sign that you may want to back off or seek a professional to help. It can take more work and time to reverse something you’ve overdone.
To maximise potential benefits and help avoid injury, focus on your large muscle groups and practice stretches too.
Steer clear of potentially risky moves like rolling the spine as the pressure can damage the vertebrae and surrounding structures; or iliotibial band (ITB) that’s made of connective tissue running down the outside of your thigh, because the ITB’s job is to maintain tension, so working to try to loosen it can cause injury. Instead, rolling the muscles that connect into the ITB would be more beneficial.
We’re three months into a new year and for many, this means a new exercise routine. Perhaps you’ve kicked your training up a gear, and the sudden increase in training frequency, intensity or starting something new, can lead to your body feeling tired and your muscles feeling heavy as if trying to move through mud.
All in all, I’m not saying whether you should or shouldn’t foam roll! Soft tissue techniques can provide fantastic results if used with other training modalities to give you the most effective and efficient outcomes possible.
Rolling and massage can help take the edge off, but it’s adequate rest, plenty of water and a good diet that will get your bounce back. What’s adequate rest? There are lots of factors that can change that answer, but a general rule of thumb for those not training as a professional is 24 hours recovery after a moderate or easy workout, 48 hours after a hard work workout and consider throwing in a week every 2-3 months where you reduce the intensity of your training to allow you to get prepared mentally and physically for your next training block.
You know how most sports seem to have an on and off season? While the weather is a possible factor, one of the main reasons is that our body can’t consistently perform at a high intensity and needs those changes to help us recover.
Foam rolling – the basics
Use a roller that’s firm enough to exert enough pressure. There’s a huge range of rollers from the smooth to the spiky, but most research has used smooth rollers. Personally I think the spiky ones are tantamount to torture and bordering on self harm – but I get that it’s different strokes for different folks so if you can, try a couple and see what works for you.
Aim to use it over the belly of the muscles, and try to cover the full length while avoiding using strong pressure over bony points, as your tendons attach there and you’re more likely to just bruise them which no good can come from.
When considering how much weight to throw behind it, try to use an amount of pressure that is firm but not painful and wouldn’t leave a bruise. When rolling, I get the best results when it feels sore but I can breathe through it easily and is not painful.
Foam rolling techniques
- Long strokes up/down the whole length of the muscle, aiming for 1-2 minutes per muscle group. This is also the technique used in most clinical studies.
- When you find a point that’s more sore than the rest of the muscle (and you know it’s not due to injury or a bony point, it’s just tighter), you can hold the pressure on that one point until you feel any pain ease off to next to nothing. Using a massage ball or tennis ball can be really effective for this as it’s easier to find the exact spot and apply the amount that you want to. You can hold this for about 30 to 60 seconds before moving away to the next spot.
Foam rolling as part of a self-care routine
In a similar vein to massage, foam rolling is a self-myofascial release (SMR) technique and can help relieve muscle tightness and aching to help increase your joint range of motion. Foam rolling can be an effective tool to add to your warm-up, cool down and stretch both before and after exercise. Self care shouldn’t be seen as a luxury – we only get this one body. Rolling, massage, stretches, exercises, rehab… they can all have their place but make enough time for self-care and include the basics: eating healthy meals, drinking plenty of water, getting enough sleep and taking time to properly relax.
Rehydrating after a workout is paramount to recovery so you can make the most of all of the hard work you’ve just done. For instance carrying nutrients and oxygen to your cells, regulating your body temperature, normalising blood pressure and stabilising your heartbeat. Proper rest is also one of the most effective ways to recover from physical activity as it allows your body to repair muscle tissue, in addition to increasing your level of human growth hormone and testosterone, which help you to perform even better tomorrow. Lastly, eating the best foods we can afford gives our body the fuel it needs to perform and recover properly. What you put in your body matters as it provides the vitamins and nutrients you need after physical activity has put stress on your body, supporting your recovery.
3, The Acute Effects of a Warm-Up Including Static or Dynamic Stretching on Countermovement Jump Height, Reaction Time, and Flexibility