Foam rollers are everywhere these days: at home, the gym, your Osteopath’s office, even in the workplace. In this article, we’ll answer some of the most common questions about rollers. Are they right for you? How should you be using them and for how long? Understanding the best practices for foam rolling can be a tricky minefield with conflicting advice. Here’s a handy guide to help you get the most from your roller!
Is foam rolling good for you?
Using foam rollers the correct way can help increase flexibility, improve joint range-of-motion, relieve back pain, improve blood flow, and help reduce muscles soreness from post-workout DOMS. These are all reported benefits from regular foam rolling. If you’ve been using a roller for a while, you’ll have already noticed the positive changes. You might also be wondering why so many people are torturing themselves in the name of health. But foam rolling should be no more painful than a firm massage. If you grit your teeth as you roll down your IT band for the hundredth time, stop right there. We’ll talk about how to use one properly but for now, let’s look at why you should use a roller.
Why should you be foam rolling?
- Flexibility – Foam rolling has been shown to significantly improve flexibility, especially when combined with a typical warm-up routine before exercise (1). And the good news is you don’t need to roll it ‘til it hurts; studies have shown this improvement after just 2 minutes of rolling the specific area (2). So whether you’re looking to work on the flexibility in yoga, or just looking to loosen those stiff joints, reaching for the foam roller is a good idea.
- Performance – When it comes to pre-workout warm-up, you might think back to school days of standing around doing a few static leg stretches. As it turns out, those static stretches actually reduce the endurance and strength of muscles immediately after stretching (3). Not ideal if you’re about to do a heavy set of squats! Fortunately, foam rolling has no such negative side effects! Next time you warm-up for the squat rack, try a few minutes of rolling the hip flexors, quads and glutes and leave the static stretching for after your workout.
- Recovery – Post-workout foam rolling has become a staple for many athletes and for good reason. Foam rolling has been shown to substantially reduce the amount of soreness associated with DOMS and help your muscles recover faster (4). That’s a Win-Win situation.
What about back pain?
Mild back pain is often due to overuse or and imbalance of muscles. For this sort of problem, foam rolling can be a great tool to help relieve tightness. However, there are many reasons for back pain and not all of them should be treated with the roller. Figuring out when you should and shouldn’t use a roller can be difficult. The best course of action is to check with your practitioner.
How do I use a foam roller?
This is a really common question. Luckily it’s not hard to learn how to use a foam roller. After consulting with your osteopath, they might recommend you foam target a particular muscle or muscle group. They can show you exactly how to “roll” these areas. (At MetaMed, we have some handy printouts with diagrams in case you forget).
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When rolling any part of the body, there is a sweet spot of pressure for the best results; too much or too little and you won’t get the maximum benefit. All parts of the body are not equally receptive. Some areas can have trigger points or tighter muscles that can feel more painful than others.
We recommend finding a pressure you can work with for 2 minutes. It should allow you to relax. Your muscles will be tight when you begin but should relax by the time you’ve finished. If not, and you’re still feeling discomfort, you might be using too much pressure. In terms of frequency and duration, 3 to 4 times a week works for most people and approximately 2-3 minutes for each area.
I’m a runner, do I need to roll more often than most?
Runners will benefit from around 3 times a week but avid runners doing long-distance training might want to get an extra rolling session done. Pay attention to the IT band. Many runners live in fear of IT band syndrome. This painful condition affects the knee and sometimes the hip. Pain is felt when the IT band rubs over bony areas, causing inflammation during the running motion. The syndrome is often associated with tightness of the IT band. In the early days of foam rolling, this thinking led to runners spending hours a week rolling up and down this painful band of tissue.
While more rolling may sound like a good idea, the reason we call it a “band” and not a muscle is because it’s simply not a muscle. In fact, it’s technically a tendon. And tendons can’t be stretched. If you’re worried about ITB syndrome or already have it, there are ways to address it without torturing yourself on the roller!
What kind of roller do I need?
Foam rollers come in a variety of sizes, textures, and densities. Like most products these days there is an abundance of choice. We recommend picking a medium-soft one for beginners with a relatively smooth surface. Experienced users might prefer firmer ones that can come with spikes and nodules that help get into the hard-to-reach places. Note that these products can be seriously uncomfortable for the majority of people.
Is there anything I should watch out for when using my roller?
On the whole, foam rolling is a very safe practice provided it’s used carefully. Roll muscles only. Avoid bony bits, rolling over joints, or the site of a recent injury. If it’s really sore or painful, stop and ask us about it!
- Mohr, A., Long, B. and Goad, C. (2014). Effect of Foam Rolling and Static Stretching on Passive Hip-Flexion Range of Motion. Journal of Sport Rehabilitation, 23(4), pp.296-299.
- MacDonald, G., Penney, M., Mullaley, M., Cuconato, A., Drake, C., Behm, D. and Button, D. (2013). An Acute Bout of Self-Myofascial Release Increases Range of Motion Without a Subsequent Decrease in Muscle Activation or Force. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 27(3), pp.812-821.
- NELSON, A., KOKKONEN, J. and ARNALL, D. (2005). ACUTE MUSCLE STRETCHING INHIBITS MUSCLE STRENGTH ENDURANCE PERFORMANCE. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 19(2), pp.338-343.
- Lane, J., Kripaitis, D. and Spina, M. (2017). The effect of Foam Rolling (FR) on recovery from delayed onset muscle soreness. Physiotherapy, 103, p.e46.
Osteopath & Sports Nutritionist
Jamie is a Queenstown based osteopath treating a full range of muscular and skeletal injuries, particularly sports injuries. He has a practical and empathetic approach and experience treating chronic pain. He finds it incredibly fulfilling to educate and help his patients who have thought they would live with pain forever.
Special areas of interest: Shoulder injuries and rehabilitation, headaches and migraines, chronic pain and arthritis of the neck and joints an exercise rehabilitation.
Favourite technique: Jamie's great with his joint manipulations, cupping and applying a gentle but highly effective treatment. He also loves teaching people breathing techniques.