I introduced the foam roller into my exercise routines a few years ago after a 21k marathon. I'd never used one before, but I now have three and they're amazing. These are now my go-to tools for stretching, massaging sore muscles, and even exercising my core. As part of their equipment, physiotherapists and personal trainers often use foam rollers, so we asked our go-to Osteopath and Exercise Scientist Dr Paul Hermann about the benefits of foam rolling and how to choose the right size foam roller for you.
What is foam rolling?
Self-myofascial release (SMR) is a term used to describe how the muscles are released from tightness and ‘knots’ by pressing on them and massaging them. Our muscles and fascia (the layer of fibrous tissue surrounding the muscle) may become tense through daily movement and exercise, stress, and possibly nutrition imbalances. This tension in muscles, sometimes described as ‘knots’, may limit muscle flexibility and possibly cause pain or discomfort. Some people believe the changes in the muscle function associated with these ‘knots’ may even lead to injury. The foam roller is a common tool used to try and release muscular tightness, allowing the body to function more freely with less restriction.
Does it reduce muscle pain?
Many people report that using a foam roller has been effective at reducing their DOMS (delayed-onset muscle soreness). The overall evidence is inconclusive and mostly anecdotal. One study found that ‘[p]ost-exercise foam rolling on a high-density roller every 24 hours may reduce muscle tenderness and decrease Multijointed Dynamic Movements (DMM) symptoms. Using foam rolling and self-massage may be an ideal recovery modality for athletes looking for a cost-effective, easy-to-use, and time-efficient way to enhance muscle recovery.’
Can it improve flexibility and range of motion?
In a recent meta-analysis, researchers concluded that using a foam roller before activity resulted in a small improvement in sprint performance and flexibility, whereas the effect on jumping and strength performance was negligible.
They also found that rolling after activity slightly attenuated exercise-induced decreases in sprint and strength performance – that is, using the roller helped avoid some reductions in sprint and strength performances after exercise. It also reduced muscle pain perception, whereas the effect on jump performance again was trivial.
Is it good for posture?
Foam rollers can be used for specific strength and joint mobility exercises that, when identified by a health professional as being problematic and a potential cause of postural issues, may help substantially. As always, your program should be designed by a health professional so that it is safe and specific to your needs.
What should we look for when choosing a foam roller?
Foam rollers do come in various lengths and densities. Longer ones can be more suitable to full body strength and stability exercises, whereas shorted ones tend to be used more for muscle releasing, and of course are much easier to take when travelling. One thing I have found over the years is that you pay for what you get. Good quality foam rollers will retain their shape for a long time, whereas the poor quality often very cheap ones become oval shaped and difficult to use very quickly.
When should you not use a foam roller?
There are several instances where I suggest avoiding direct massage with a foam roller or any massage device for that matter. These include when you have a new injury of any sort, when you are unwell, when it is painful (not just minor discomfort), and of course there are several exercises that may not be suitable for people who are pregnant, suffering bone weakness, have blood issues or on blood thinning medication, unstable blood pressure, and some other cardiovascular and balance conditions. In short, if you have ANY medical conditions, you should seek the advice of a health professional before starting any exercise program at all. The added benefit is that you’ll get exercise advice specific to you and your needs.