This week we’re rollin’ with it…foam rollers that is! While many are familiar with this soft tissue tool, and may even own one, I’ve come find that most people are unsure of how to optimize their usage, and unclear on what exactly it does for their body. Since I get so many questions about foam rollers and how to use them, I decided it would probably be helpful to share my answers with all of you! Below are the top three questions I get asked most often about foam rolling:
While stretching and foam rolling are often used to accomplish similar outcomes (i.e. increased range of motion and flexibility), they are not in fact the same thing. Stretching increases tissue extensibility through a specific joint or region of the body by taking a specific muscle or tissue group to it’s end range of motion by way of a passive hold or dynamic movement pattern. Foam rolling increases tissue extensibility by way of applying direct pressure to localized area to decrease trigger points that cause muscular tension and fascia (connective tissue that surrounds muscles) restrictions. Studies have shown that foam rolling helps to increase mobility, increase athletic performance and decrease muscle soreness after activities (1-3,7). Additionally, cardiovascular studies have begun to show that foam rolling also increases blood flow and reduces arterial tissue stiffness via nitric oxide, which is believed to decrease risk for injury, prepare tissue for activity/extensibility, and aide with recovery (4). While both stretching and foam rolling are beneficial in their owns ways respectively, one does not replace the other. There is a time and place for both depending on what your body needs and what activities you like to do. See my previous blog post to get more details about the science behind this more specifically.
It depends. I know, that’s the answer no one likes to hear, but it’s the truth. Foam rolling is helpful before a workout in order to increase mobility without impairing performance (1-3), and to increase blood flow in order to prepare the body for increased exertion (4). Foam rolling is helpful after a workout to decrease muscle soreness, decrease tissue tension that was created during activities, and to aide with recovery (1,2,7). Foam rolling is also beneficial on recovery days for these same reasons.
So depending on what you’re goals are, what you’re working on, and what activities you’re participating in, that will best determine duration and frequency. In general, I recommend that most people spend 5-10min rolling areas that tend to be tight or restricted just prior to a workout to help increase mobility and blood flow, followed by 5-10min of rolling after a workout that is particularly challenging and/or when you feel an area that’s become restricted after participating in an activity. As for recovery days, do what feels good to you. In terms of scientific evidence around ideal frequency and duration, the jury’s still out in the research world. Many studies report there being no clear evidence in favor of shorter (10-30sec) vs. longer (2-10min) rolling duration times yielding a more meaningful therapeutic effect (4-6). Yet, all studies continue to state that more research need to be done to further examine duration and frequency guidelines, and that studies should also consider whether or not the amount of pressure applied impacts the overall therapeutic effects to soft tissue (6,8).
Until the research world can give us more information, most therapists err on the side of recommending a sustained pressure on a trigger point of 90-120sec (8). This is the what’s been found to be a therapeutic dose when applying manual therapy by therapists to a patient, and thus what I recommend for others when performing their own self-administered myofascial release with their rollers. So when working through a restricted area of tissue, roll around until you find a specific spot that feels especially tight and “hurts so good”. Once you’ve located that spot, stay there with a sustained pressure of 90-120sec, then move around again to find the next spot, and repeat for 5-10min. Rolling back and forth over an area without sustained pressure releases more superficial layers vs sustained pressure being more effective for deeper restrictions. Both can be helpful depending on what your body needs.
There are approximately three different densities available when purchasing a foam roller: low, medium, and high. For those new to foam rolling, I recommend starting with a medium density roller in order to get used to the amount of pressure being applied. When rollers are too firm, people tend to hold tension throughout their bodies by bracing through the discomfort while rolling, thus negating the purpose of releasing restricted tissues. You want a roller that gives you a tolerable amount of pressure so that you feel a therapeutic effect. You know, that hurt so good kind of feeling. If your roller is too soft, you won’t achieve a meaningful change to the tissues. I also get questions about rollers that vibrate and/or have flexible bumps or ridges. These features are all up to personal preference. You can easily achieve the same soft tissue outcomes with a basic style roller. No need for extra bells and whistles unless you want ‘em. One last thing to consider is size. Rollers range from about 4in-36in in length and approximately 5in in diameter. If you want a roller that can travel easily with you, then I’d recommend a more compact size. However, if space isn’t an issue, I’d opt for the longer roller hands down. The longer roller gives you more versatility for rolling options, as well as, the ability to use your roller for deep core and strengthening exercises (we’ll talk about that in a future post). The more ya know 😉
So there’s the quick and dirty on foam rollers. I hope you now feel more informed about the purpose and application of foam rolling and how to choose the right roller for you! Still have questions? I’d love to hear from you! Reach out and let me know. I’d be happy to speak further and answer any burning questions you still have on this topic.