Whether you’re achy from ratcheting your workouts up a notch in your newly resolved New Year, or just have perpetually tight hamstrings or quads (among other muscles), foam rolling is worthy of trying. This simple, low cost addition to your fitness routine can help anyone, from the elite athlete to the weekend warrior, perform better and recover faster.
Foam rolling is a form of massage in which you use your own body weight and a commercially available foam roller (Walmart, Target, Amazon and most sporting goods stores; prices start at about $10) to work the soft tissue. By rolling across the foam roller, you place pressure onto the targeted tissue which stretches the tissue and creates friction. This combination of stretching and friction helps release the strong connective tissue that covers the muscle bundles, called myofascia, which stabilizes the musculoskeletal system. The myofascia is also responsible for smooth gliding of muscle tissue as well as fluid and nutrient exchange.
Foam rolling has been known to help loosen the myofascial tissue which, when it becomes dense and dehydrated, can constrict the muscle tissue and results in pain and decreased function. Myofascial dysfunction can cause widespread pain, so the benefits of foam rolling are not isolated to just the targeted treatment area. The combination of stretch and friction generated when using the foam roller helps to free up the myofascial tissue from the muscles allowing it to glide smoothly freely.
Foam rolling has also been known to decrease delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) following physical activity. Exercise can cause microdamage to the muscle tissue, resulting in tenderness and stiffness with movement and/or touch, often peaking between 24 to 72 hours following exercise and then beginning to subside with full resolution in five to seven days. DOMs can hinder performance and may result in altered muscle function and joint mechanics, which can greatly decrease performance and training intensity. Studies have shown that foam rolling can reduce the symptoms of DOMs and accelerate recovery by rolling for 20 minutes immediately post exercise.
- Body Scan: Set the foam roller on the floor and roll your major muscle groups across it. Look for any areas of increased tightness or pain where the myofascial tissue is dense and restrictive. Roll over the areas 5-10 times to help warm up and mobilize the tissue.
- Constant Pressure: With this technique, you want to apply a constant pressure to the area of tightness or pain. Once you locate the target area, hold your position over the area for 30-90 seconds or until you feel the tightness begin to release. Make sure you warm up first using the scanning technique, as this can be painful for beginners.
Other things to know:
- Aggressive foam rolling can make you sore. Begin a foam rolling routine gradually and increase the time and pressure of your sessions over a few days/weeks. Start with gentle movements and ramp it up.
- The more you roll, the easier it gets. Once you have eliminated your major areas of tightness and pain you can begin maintenance foam rolling sessions for 15-20 minutes, working your body’s muscle groups in sequence.
- If a movement is too painful, adjust your body weight to decrease the pressure on the area. Also, avoid rolling over bony areas as this can be very painful.
- Stay hydrated! Hydrated muscles are happy muscles, and this helps to flush out the toxins.
- If you have a spinal condition, do not attempt foam rolling movements on your back unless approved by your doctor.
By William Carroll, MD, Roper St. Francis Physician Partners Orthopaedics