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Can foam rolling help me? 

You have probably heard about foam rolling before; chances are you probably have roller or two in your home right now. Foam rolling can be a great way to help enhance recovery, promote circulation, or boost your warm up routine. By the sounds of it, foam rolling should be a pleasurable activity although many people would disagree.

What is foam rolling?

Foam rolling is a simple self-manual therapy technique often used to improve flexibility, recovery, and athletic performance.

What can’t foam rolling do?

Foam rolling advocates have claimed for years that rolling on a piece of foam can lengthen muscles, release trigger points, and even remodel scar tissue. Unfortunately much more research is needed to clarify the effects of foam rolling. A muscle’s length is dictated by where it originates and inserts into your bones and using a foam roller will not change that; so, muscles can’t get “longer” with foam rolling. Trigger points are spots with in your tissues that don’t move as they should and often cause pain and apprehension. Again, foam rolling by itself cannot change the structure of other tissues; so consequently, it cannot truly release trigger points or remodel scar tissue.

If it doesn’t change our tissues, how come we still do it?

Well, because it feels good (depending on the person). Foam rolling can help relax your nervous system which in turn can have a short term effect that makes it feel like your muscles are longer or that your trigger points have disappeared. Many use a foam roller as a way to hack their nervous systems and overcome Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness or DOMS (short term muscle pain that can inhibit your ability to move well). By using a foam roller you may be able to overcome your body’s nervous system and the DOMS effect, getting you back to training faster, than without it.

Foam rolling can also help with circulation both by circulating fluid through tissues but also simply by promoting more movement. Blood and other fluids need the muscle contractions to help push blood and lymphatic through their respective vessels, without movement these fluids will start to pool in our legs and arms causing swelling among other issues.

Why does it hurt so much?

The answer many trainers will give you is “Because, that’s just how it works!” … More than likely you are rolling too aggressively. Many trainers and trainees still subscribe to the “No pain, no gain” mantras popularized by bodybuilders years ago; and while foam rolling can be uncomfortable, it shouldn’t feel like torture!

Some foam rolling concepts for you to try:
|FLUSHING| Roll continuously and gently without stopping, lengthwise along a muscle

  • Up to 1 minute per body part
  • Use as a warm up, to stimulate fluid flow and the nervous system
  • Slow down the speed and keep it light after training or before bed for a relaxation effect

|PRESSURE WAVE| Oscillate slowly with pressure over trigger points (sensitive areas)

  • 1 to 3 minutes per point
  • Use to find and relax “tight” tissues (by calming the nervous system)
  • Press your tissues firmly into the roller

|PIN & STRETCH| Apply pressure directly on trigger point then contract and relax the muscle

  • 1 to 3 minutes per point
  • Use to relax “tight” tissues and promote muscle and/or joint function
  • Technique is similar to Active Release Therapy (ART®) popular among soft tissue therapists

Dos and Don’ts of foam rolling:

DO use pressure wave and pin & stretch techniques around insertions and origins of muscles (beginning and ends), this part of the muscle is considerably less sensitive/painful compared to the muscle belly (middle). You can still roll the muscle belly if you like, just be nice about it!

DON’T foam roll for more than 15-20 minutes. Regardless of your goal too much rolling can lead to tissue damage. Pick 2 – 3 areas of concern and focus on those.

DO use a foam roller as part of your warm up before exercise; not too hard or too long. Light and fast rolling helps activate the nervous system and increase fluid flow to muscles and joints.

DON’T force your muscle into submission by continually pressing on the same spot for minutes at a time. This will lead to muscle and nervous system fatigue.

DO foam roll to relax your body after a workout or before bed. Rolling can be useful to relax the nervous system, kick starting your recovery period or helping you fall asleep faster.

DON’T foam roll directly over joints or bone. Your spine, shoulder, and hip are some exceptions since there is an abundance of tissue preventing excessive pressure over the joint and bones.

DO seek the advice of a professional, especially when using a foam roller around major injuries. Foam rolling is not designed as an exercise in pain tolerance. Too much sustained pressure on one body part can result it further damage.

If you are trying to improve your fitness or health, if something feels good, appears logical and healthy, or seems to help then don’t stop! Just because science has yet to confirm the benefits of foam rolling, doesn’t mean it it’s not right for you.

Exercises, therapies, diets, etc… work differently for different people.
Who cares about what others think? Find what works for you!

Paul Bradshaw l Kinesiologist