Any athlete or fitness enthusiast that takes their training seriously will be well aware of foam rollers. There are potentially great benefits to rolling, both to your performance and recovery. Foam rollers have become an essential piece of equipment for athletes and fitness enthusiasts alike.
For a long time now I have encouraged each and every one of my athletes to invest and buy a roller that they can call their own. Foam rollers come in a variety of sizes, colours and densities and textures. (we will look some varieties later) but all have the same goal, and that is to improve muscle tissue and fascia quality.
Foam rolling, is a technique of self myofaciscal release (SMR) and has been part of the strength and conditioning and personal training world for a number of years. Many athletes/clients perform rolling techniques pre and post workout and practice; the goal being to make them feel better and ready to perform.
Science aside, the mind is a powerful thing and if you think something is beneficial then it often is, even if it’s a placebo. However, there is some credible research out there now that allows us to look a little deeper into why and how foam rolling might be beneficial for you.
Roll to iron out the knots
Without getting too technical let’s look at what exactly foam rolling hopes to achieve. Very simply, imagine your muscle as a piece of string. After lots of work in the gym, playing field or other physical activity or even injury, your muscles get damaged and scar tissue will build up and cause trigger points. These become problem areas that can prevent normal muscle mechanics such as joint range of motion, muscle length, and decreased strength, endurance and motor coordination. All of which are vitally important when looking at producing optimal performance (1, 2).
Let’s now think back to the string; tie a knot in the string, and in essence we have created scar tissue, or a trigger point. If we ignore these knots and continue to pull the string then the knot will get tighter and tension will increase either side of the knot, causing all the negative effects on our muscle mechanics mentioned above.
When tension increases at a certain point of a muscle, this point becomes more susceptible to injury, tears and pulls once sporting or physical activity has started. Ideally when these knots or trigger points occur you would want some hands on work with manual therapy and deep tissue massage.
Unfortunately this isn’t always available or convenient and will become an expensive habit. This is where the foam roller can help; think of it as a self-massage tool. It will never take the place of a good manual therapist but it can be a more practical and accessible alternative. With foam rolling we hope to iron out these knots.
It’s painful, surely it can’t be good?
When we talk about pain and exercise I live by the premise that if you perform an exercise and it hurts then don’t do it. When we experience pain we need to find an alternative exercise or movement that is pain free, and look for solutions to fix the pain causing movements. However with foam rolling I consider pain a good thing; finding those sore or painful spots when rolling is the very idea. So find those trigger points and get to work with the roller, and don’t worry too much about the soreness and pain, when rolling it’s ok to look like our little buddy here.
Use you common sense though; rolling might not be the answer every time. If you have injuries, wounds or bruises then rolling might not be the answer for you and seeking the advice or expertise of a professional would be the way to go.
What the science and research says
For the record I have used foam rolling and similar techniques for a long time on myself, my athletes and clients. For whatever reason I see real world results and know that it makes myself and my clients feel better and aids in performance, rehab and recovery. As a result I will continue to use these techniques until I receive different results.
However let’s summarise some results from the recent research.
In a research paper that studied the acute effects of SMR on the lower extremity plyometric performance the author found that (3) –
• Foam rolling flexibility was increased by 12.7% after 2 minutes and by 10.3% after ten minutes
• Foam rolling did not negatively affect muscle activation, and contractile force properties. This was the opposite to that seen from regular massage and static stretching.
• Foam rolling improved the correlation between range of motion and force production.
This research paper also mentioned that a dynamic warm up was more effective than foam rolling when performing a variety of plyometric movements, but this seems totally obvious to me. However, improving muscle quality by foam rolling prior to an effective dynamic warm up could show even greater performance results. Until a scientist conducts this study to prove this I will continue to use a similar protocol prior to performance.
In another recent study (4) an acute bout of SMR of the quadriceps is an effective treatment to enhance knee joint range of motion without a concomitant deficit in muscle performance. Findings like these only re-enforce the use of SMR with your clients and athletes.
Ways to Roll
Below you will see a video of the rolling technique that I use with all my clients and athletes. In the interest of being time efficient, if the rolling has no effect in terms of discomfort and the quality of the muscle tissue is good then I suggest that they not waste time on rolling this muscle group.
Focus on the groups that need the most attention (more often than not it’s the glutes, hamstrings, quads and calves). I suggest rolling 10 times or for about 30 seconds per muscle group. If you find a tender area or trigger point then focus small rolls or pause over this spot until the pressure eases.
I work from the feet up for a fluid progression from one muscle group to the next. Apply as much pressure as is comfortable and will ensure the desired results. Never roll over a direct joint of bone (knee cap or spine). Position your body where you are able to get as much of the muscle surface area as possible in one roll. Various different tools can be used in addition to rollers, for smaller muscle groups or hard to reach areas I sometimes use golf balls, hockey balls, and even medicine balls.
Types of Rollers
There are countless types of rollers available on the market today, all of different densities and shapes. For cost and quality I would purchase a closed cell dense roller – while a little more expensive than the cheaper white open cell rollers, they will last 3 times longer.
Other rollers on the market are the grid, the rumble roller and the stick (not a roller but a massage stick, based on the same concept). All have varying benefits and densities, so experiment to find your favourite. For the hard core of you there is always dense tubing or piping.
Do you roll already and have a comment or question? Then feel free to leave them below and we will get back to you. Be sure to tell your friends by using the social media buttons to like, tweet, and share.
1. Boyle M. (2006) “Foam Rolling.” Available at: http://www.strengthcoach.com/public/1303.cfm.
2. National Council on Strength & Fitness. (2009) “Foam Roller Warmup.” Available at: http://www.ncsf.org/enew/articles/articles-FoamrollerWarmup.aspx.
3. Fama B, Bueti D. (2011)”The Acute Effect Of Self-Myofascial Release On Lower Extremity Plyometric Performance”Pre-Published copy Sacred Heart University.
4. Miller JK, Rockey AM. (2006) “Foam Rollers Show No Increase in the Flexibility of the Hamstring Muscle Group.”University of Wisconsin- Lacrosse Journal of Undergraduate Research. 9.