Foam Rolling: What’s With All the Hype?
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Foam Rolling: What’s With All the Hype?

This 30-second pain relief technique is a popular way to get the kinks out. Here’s how.

Go into any gym, physical therapist’s office or rehab center and you will probably find foam rollers stacked on the floor or hanging on a rack. Many exercisers and pain-relief seekers swear by foam rolling. They claim the mini massage can help provide temporary relief for muscle aches and soreness, whenever they need to get the “kinks” out.

Foam rollers can also be used as part of your regular stretching routine. “Prior to working out, you can use foam rolling to help with range of motion and flexibility short term,” says Michael Simpson, DO, a family medicine and sports doctor with LewisGale Hospital Pulaski in Pulaski, Virginia. “That’s what it’s been shown to help with.”

But how effective is foam rolling overall? A November 2015 paper in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy reviewed 14 articles about range of motion, muscle soreness and muscle performance after foam rolling. The researchers found that foam rollers had positive short-term effects on range of motion, and no known negative effects on muscle performance. However, research hasn’t conclusively determined whether foam rollers relieve soreness—although many people claim that it makes them feel better.

How it works
Foam rolling uses pressure from the roller to release pain in your tissue through a stretching technique called self-myofascial release (SMR). The myofascial tissue is a connective sheet, or band, of tough membranes that both wrap and cover the muscles. Think of myofascial tissue as that thin, white fibrous layer that completely envelops the inside of an orange.

Stress, overuse, trauma, injury and improper form during exercise are just a few things that can cause muscles (fascia) to stiffen. The tightness—particularly at anchor points—causes soreness and loss of flexibility. Using a foam roller to target these areas can temporarily ease aches and restore the muscle back to its functional use.

Foam roll before and after workouts
If you do decide to foam roll, the best time is during a warmup, says Simpson. Do your quick foam rolling session either before or during a 10- to 15-minute warmup. Depending on the type of workout you’re doing, your warmup might include dynamic stretches such as high kicks, or static stretches such as holding a hamstring stretch.

Post-workout, you can use a foam roller as a recovery tool. Using it for 10 to 20 minutes can help relieve any pain, especially after high-intensity workouts. For further relief, use the foam roller on the sore areas for the next three days.

You don’t need to be an avid gym-goer to use this technique, either. If you have muscle soreness from sitting at a desk all day, or from a long road trip, for example, you can use a foam roller at home to release muscle tension.

How to roll out tension
There is still no conclusion about the best foam rolling technique, pressure and speed.

The National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) suggests moving the foam roller an inch per second, or until you find a spot that is particularly tender. Then, hold the roller on that spot for 30 seconds, or until the muscle begins to relax. You can repeat this another two to three times if the muscle is still sore. For more sensitive areas, be cautious with how much pressure you apply.

Simpson suggests the hamstrings, quadriceps, muscles on the outside of the upper thigh, lower back, upper back and neck. Avoid foam rolling on areas of the body that aren’t dense in muscle tissues, such as the abdomen.

When to skip it
“Foam rolling in general is pretty safe,” says Simpson. However, there are times when you shouldn’t use it. Don’t use a foam roller if:

  • You have an injury or recently underwent surgery
  • You have a skin infection, such as eczema, or an open wound
  • You have a history of blood clots, or you take anticoagulants (blood thinners)

Those with a skeletal muscular condition, such as rheumatoid arthritis or bursitis, should avoid rolling near painful joints.

If you’re not sure foam rolling is safe for you, ask your physical therapist, if you have one, or doctor. Women who are pregnant should check with their doctors before starting. Because you’re applying pressure to painful points, foam rolling may be uncomfortable at first. But as you continue to pinpoint sore areas, you should feel a release of tension. Note that if you feel intense pain, stop. Remember that more pain does not mean increased benefits.

Choosing the right one
Foam rollers come in a multitude of shapes, sizes and colors: from pink to lime green, dense to light, ridged to flat.

“Different people have different methods of using a foam roller. Some will use a different stiffness, some will use a different size,” says Simpson. “There's really no brand or type that's necessarily better than the other.” The important factor is to choose one that works for you, based on your pain needs.