The benefits of foam rolling for treating muscle aches and pains as well as hastening post-workout recovery is real and verified. Here’s the scoop on what it is, who benefits from it, why it works, how to do it and which roller you should use for the best results.
Foam rollers are self-descriptive. They’re solid, cylinder-shaped objects, usually made of a firm foam material. The original foam rollers had a smooth surface. But, since rolling has become wildly popular in the fitness world, they have morphed into many variations. Some are a combination of foam and plastic, some are hollow in the middle, some have a textured or knobbed surface and some are equipped with an inner vibrating motor.
Foam rollers serve two populations: the injured and the physically active. Of course, it’s not uncommon for us to fall into both categories at once. In both cases, the pressure on the targeted muscle from the roller (ideally provided by body weight) along with the rolling motion breaks up misaligned muscle fibers, realigns and lengthens the fibers and increases blood circulation along the rolled area.
Foam rolling muscular injuries: All of us have experienced the occasional adhesion, or knot, in a muscle that creates a pressure, or trigger, point of pain and often inhibits the muscle’s flexibility and range of motion in the joints adjacent to it. The causes of these knots could be repetitive movement, overuse, prolonged sitting or sleeping in an awkward position. It’s not uncommon for the source to be a mystery. Sometimes the knot can radiate, spread or even move from one point to another. If not properly treated, the adhesions can become chronic, particularly in athletic, fitness enthusiast and physical labor populations. The most common examples of this are runner’s knee, jumper’s knee, shin splints, IT band syndrome (outer thigh) and lower back pain. Rolling the affected area daily promotes healing, reduces pain and increases flexibility and range of motion.
Foam rolling for the physically active: The more active we are and the harder our workouts, the more important it is to sufficiently recover before the next workout. Otherwise, we’re more likely to suffer from the above-referenced chronic injuries or overtraining. It’s been observed that foam rolling the entire muscular chain – upper and middle back, shoulders, chest, abs, glutes, hip flexors, inner and outer thighs, hamstrings, quads, calves and shins – after every high intensity or endurance workout helps to decrease post-workout pain, stiffness and soreness; increase flexibility and range of motion and speed post-workout recovery.
No matter the reason for foam rolling, the fundamental process remains the same:
- The roller should apply pressure on the muscle. This is best done by placing the roller on the floor and lying or sitting on top of it so the top of the roller is directly pressuring the target muscle or knot. If it’s not possible to be mobile enough to roll on the roller in this position, you may have to use the roller on a wall and lean into it over the targeted muscle or knot. (See examples here.)
- Breathe deeply throughout the rolling process.
- Never roll directly on the lower back. To loosen the lower back, concentrate on the mid-back, glutes, hamstrings and hip flexors.
- For knots: Hold on the pressure point for one deep inhale and exhale. As you exhale, roll over the pressure point in a back and forth motion. This should be done for one minute or more over each knot. If it’s possible, roll the affected muscle in multiple directions (up and down, side to side and diagonally) for up to one minute in each direction. This can be done any time of the day, one or more times per day, and needn’t be accompanied by a workout. If you have chronic trigger points, these should be rolled out before and after every workout. Stretch after you’ve rolled post-workout.
- For workout recovery: After your cool-down but before stretching, begin with either the top or lower part of your body and work your way down (or up), making sure to do the front and back side of the body, not including the neck or lower back. Roll for a few seconds in multiple directions for each muscle group, section by section. If you find a knot, hold on that point through a deep inhale and exhale, then roll out the knot until you feel the muscle fibers release before moving onto the next muscle group. Don’t forget to stretch afterwards.
What you need to know if you’ve never rolled before: it hurts. Especially when you first hit that trigger point. Eventually, it will give you that hurts-so-good sensation, but it does take some practice and patience. Best to select a smooth foam roller, as opposed to knobby or hard plastic, to begin. The good news is the basic foam roller is the most affordable. And, at first, you should expect to be able to tolerate only several seconds of rolling at a time. That’s okay. Any amount of rolling is beneficial. You’ll eventually work your way up to a minute or more of rolling at a time. For chronic pressure points, aim to progress your way up to firmer or knobby rollers.
If you can afford it, a vibrating roller is a great investment. Studies have shown the vibration function allows one to tolerate rolling longer compared to a non-motorized roller. And, the longer you roll, the better and quicker the results.
It’s no hype, rolling is the way to go for muscle pain and workout recovery. Roll on!