Foam rolling has gained a faithful following over the last several years as a method of self-massage and joint mobilization. The concept of tool-assisted muscle release is not a new one as physiotherapists and massage therapists have been advising clients to sit on tennis balls, lean into lacrosse balls or get themselves a Thera Cane for decades already. The basic idea behind this method is to utilize a firm, somewhat unforgiving surface to apply pressure to tight muscular areas to aide in the release of tension and possibly the decrease of pain related to said muscular tension.
Foam rolling has taken on a greater role (or is that roll????) in the world of fitness and rehab than the lonely little tennis ball ever managed to achieve. Rolling has become a very popular trend with body builders, elite athletes, fitness novices and rehab clients alike resorting to this method in hopes of improving their sport performance, aiding their post-workout muscular recovery and decreasing their chronic muscle pain. Some fitness studios even go so far as to offer Foam Rolling Classes, utilizing the rollers alternatively as a strengthening and balance tool and as a soft tissue and joint mobilizing aide in the same lesson. These classes often fall under the Yoga or Pilates genre of classes and the roller acts as a manner of enhancing the stretches and progressing the difficulty of the poses.
Science Behind the Practice
There does seem to be scientific support for the use of foam rollers to reduce post workout muscle soreness, improve range of motion, improve muscular activation and improve certain aspects of sport performance. A study carried out at Memorial University in Newfoundland looked at the immediate effects of foam rolling on the Quadriceps (front thigh) muscle strength and range of motion/flexibility following an intense Squat workout. This study compared a Rolling Group to a Control Group (rest for 2 minutes). The "Rollers" demonstrated a 10 degree improvement in range of motion vs. the "Resters" who only gained one degree improvement. As well, the Rollers demonstrated an increased pressure-pain threshold, increased sprint speed, increased power and increased dynamic strength and endurance compared to the control group. In other words, foam rolling after an intense exercise session appears to aid and abet exercise recovery to the extent that it has the ability to improve overall sport performance.
Possible Benefits of Foam Rolling
1) Improves long term muscle flexibility
2) Improves muscular imbalances
3) Improves joint and muscle range of motion
4) Decreases post workout muscle soreness
5) Decreases chronic muscle tension
6) Aides in the prevention of overuse injuries
7) Improves sport performance
8) Improves neuromuscular efficiency
Roll With It: The Method
It is important to use a mindful approach to this method of self-massage as it is possible to harm oneself (beyond the obvious short-term discomfort of poking around tender muscles) with a poorly executed foam rolling session.
Perform foam roller sessions on warm muscles only
Position the roller under the soft tissue area you want to loosen
Maintain core stability throughout your rolling session
Gently roll your body weight back and forth across the roller while targeting tight muscles
Stay on soft tissue and avoid rolling directly over bones or joints
Never roll your low back as it is not well padded or protect
Freely roll the upper back as it is well protected by the shoulder blades
Never roll your Iliotibial band (this is a point of discussion and possible future blog article)
Breathe, breathe, breathe while you roll
Maintain pressure for approximately 20 seconds in any one area when first starting out
Increase the time ( 60 seconds to 2 minutes ) as you become more experienced and tolerant
Tissue depth, area involved and level of rolling experience are the combined determinants of duration
A complete body session should last 10-20 minutes
Drink plenty of water after your session
If you have never tried foam rolling, you may want to seek the guidance of a fitness or rehabilitation professional to assist you with your first introductions to this wonderful method of self-massage.