I often encourage patients to use a foam roller or hand held roller massage tool as part of their rehabilitation exercise plan. They are a great piece of kit that are inexpensive to buy – around £20 and are easily portable so you can take them away with you on business trips or training camps helping to maintain that all important consistency in your rehab. It’s probably the closest way to replicate a massage at the clinic – and it’s fun – kind of!
So what is foam rolling and what does it do?
A foam roller is a cylinder shaped tool that you roll on or lie on to release tightness or soreness in the soft tissues.
Foam rolling acts on the connective tissue or fascia that surrounds the muscles in our bodies it is a form of Self-Myofascial Release thought to increase flexibility and range of movements in our joints. It is a quick and simple form of rehab that uses your bodyweight to apply pressure and friction to the tissues. You literally roll on it- massaging and releasing the muscles and fascia as you go.
Can anyone use one or is it just for super fit athletes?
You do need a basic level of core stability as it is an unstable surface and many of the positions are based around variations of the plank exercise. If you are new to exercise or just returning to exercise after a break or you have a back condition it would be advisable to be supervised by your Physiotherapist initially. The good thing is once you get the hang of it you will be working your core at the same time as releasing your soft tissues- Bonus!!
And a hand held massage tool?
It works in much the same way – only you are using your upper limbs to apply pressure whilst rolling the tool over painful or tight spots. On the plus side it is more portable than a foam roller and can be good if you want to apply a more gentle pressure as it isn’t using bodyweight. It is also good for those patients who aren’t confident using a foam roller – perhaps they have reduced balance or reduced core stability.
How does it work?
This method of Self-Myofascial Release is thought to stimulate changes in the fascia altering its thixotropic and viscoelastic properties making it more gel-like, mobile and malleable. Research suggests that improvements in flexibility are due the friction induced by the foam roller, which increases blood flow, mechanically breaks down scar tissue and adhesions, and remobilises and remodels the fascia.
Does foam rolling help with recovery?
Foam rolling is also thought to have an effect on muscle recovery, reducing the sensation of DOMS (Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness) following an intense exercise session.
Could it reduce Muscular performance if used before an event or training session?
Research as shown that whilst static stretching is not advisable prior to an event or sporting activity as it reduces muscular stiffness and performance- foam rolling has no detrimental effects on muscular performance. In this study foam rolling was used for one set of 30 seconds prior to a dynamic warm up of the lower limbs.
Does foam rolling have any beneficial effects on performance if used prior to an event or sporting activity?
Sadly not! Whilst it doesn’t cause any harm it also doesn’t improve performance.
– however it could still be a useful tool to prepare your body for exercise- safe in the knowledge that it isn’t doing any harm. I would advocate using it as part of a mobility warm up session. I would encourage athletes to use faster cadence or rolling speed and lighter pressures for no more than 30 seconds and to follow it with a dynamic warm up specific to the sport that they are about to engage in– in effect to increase blood flow and stimulate neuromuscular activity- in a sense waking the body up ready for performance.
How hard and how much pressure/pain?
The decision is still out on this one. Research in this area is relatively new and as yet there is no consensus on technique. I would suggest that you should aim to be reasonably comfortable when using the foam roller – don’t try to inflict pain on yourself as you will likely be causing more tissue damage. For pre exercise I would suggest fast light rolling and post exercise much slower and slightly deeper rolling.
Foam rolling pre exercise – dose
I would suggest using foam rolling as a tool prior to exercise or performance if used for no more than 30 seconds and followed by a dynamic warm up. Whilst the current research shows there is no performance benefits to be gained it also reassures us that no harm will be caused if used in this way. I would also suggest using a faster cadence or rolling speed and a lighter pressure- in a sense to wake the body up ready for performance by increasing blood flow and neuromuscular activity.
Foam rolling post exercise
In a research review, studies reported a duration of between 30 seconds to 1 min x 2 sets of foam rolling was found to give temporary increases in joint range of movement. In one study foam rolling was found to be more effective when combined with static stretching than when used alone.
I would suggest that for post exercise – foam rolling would be a useful tool as part of a structured warm down session – starting with a sport specific warm down, then sport specific stretches, 30 seconds of foam rolling on each primary muscle groups used, static stretches and followed with dynamic stretches and a further session of foam rolling of 30 seconds.
In the paper that studied the effects of foam rolling on reducing DOMS following intense training sessions– their participants carried out foam rolling for between 10 and 20 mins for 3 successive days.
If you would like any more advice on how to structure a warm up or cool down specific to your sport or activity please get in touch.