Can you recover better with the foam roller?

By now, if you’ve been going to a public gym you have seen people laying on or rolling around on this foam cylinder thingy. 

Are these people part of some weird exercise group? Is this foam thing a form of black magic? Do other people know something you don’t?

This foam cylinder has become a hot piece of equipment in the gym over the last few years. Usually located in the corner of most fitness centers, the little rolling pin can be quite the useful tool when trying to recover from tough workouts. But how?

The mechanism behind foam rolling

Foam rolling can seem like a magic trick. You feel tight and restricted, so you lay on top of it and roll around a little bit. When you stand back up, you feel better. How the heck did that happen? Is it just perceived change and not actually real? While most foam roll users expect this positive outcome, it’s not common knowledge how this change actually occurs. So, this article aims to dig a bit deeper using science and highlighting a few pieces of research. 

First, let’s discuss what’s going on underneath the skin at the tissue level to understand why the feeling this perceived change may exist.

When you go to a spa to get a massage, they may offer you a deep tissue massage. This, in other words, is a “myofascial release”. A myofascial release is done by placing direct pressure on a specific area of fascia to reduce local tightness that may be present. While fascia remains a debate in the science world, it’s only necessary for our purpose to define it as the matrix of soft tissue underneath your skin. This tissue should run smoothly over each other like sheets of silk. However, hours and hours of sitting at a desk combined with poor hydration/nutrition and intense exercise causes these sheets of silk to become bundled, clumpy balls of clay. Instead of sliding over top of each other when movements occur, there is a tug of war game going on in your quads manifesting itself as pain.

By using a foam roller, you can now remove the masseuse from the equation. This is not only a cheaper option, but can allow you to get to know yourself better. Now, you can be in control of where the pressure goes by directing and orienting the roller in a way that suits you. Your soft tissue responds to pressure from the roller and you feel less tension. As a result, you have less perceived pain. The reason for this relief could be simply because the pressure causes more blood to flow to the area or because it smoothes the fascia actually smoothes out. While that can be debated, there is no argument that when you have a stiff quad you will probably feel better after rolling it out. 

But, before you go out and order anything it’s always good practice to check out some research to see what studies say on the topic. 

Research on foam rolling:

Macdonald et al. (2014): Foam Rolling as a Recovery Tool after an
Intense Bout of Physical Activity (n = 20)

-“Foam roll group displayed substantially less pain at all time points compared with control group. Because connective tissue is the major site for exercise-induced muscle damage disruption and pain, foam rolling can be considered to be beneficial in the recovery of connective tissue.”

Healey et al. (2014): The Effects of Myofascial Release With Foam Rolling on Performance (n = 26)

“The results of this study suggest that SMR through the use of foam rollers before a workout does not enhance athletic performance”. 

Cheatham et al. (2015)- THE EFFECTS OF SELF‐MYOFASCIAL RELEASE USING A FOAM ROLL OR ROLLER MASSAGER ON JOINT RANGE OF MOTION, MUSCLE RECOVERY, AND PERFORMANCE: A SYSTEMATIC REVIEW: (14 articles reviewed)

“The results of this systematic review indicate that SMR using either foam rolling or roller massage may have short‐term effects of increasing joint ROM without decreasing muscle performance. Foam rolling and roller massage may also attenuate decrements in muscle performance and reduce perceived pain after an intense bout of exercise.”

After reviewing of articles beyond the one’s shown above, it seems like foam rolling isn’t going to change your life but may provide relief. While it does not benefit athletic performance measures, it does reduce perceived pain and stiffness in certain spots. If you have a routine that involves going to get a massage, keep doing that. But, if you want to save money the foam roller could provide some similar effects in less time. A solid 10 minute warm-up may also provide the same result, but foam rolling while you watch tv at night could be the ticket. 

How to start foam rolling

Now that we’ve discussed the why, we need the how. To oversimplify it, you just lay on top of the roller and move around. To be specific and give you actionable info, I want you to try three methods that I got from the always awesome Kelly Starrett. 

The flossing method:

This method of flossing will not be getting any food out of the hard to reach places in your mouth. Instead, it’s done by finding a spot that is tight and stiff and putting pressure on it. Once pressure is applied, begin to move two inches up and two inches down from your starting point. If you start to feel the pain or pressure dissipate, hunt around for a new spot that may need more love. Now, add in some more movement just as the dental floss moves through your teeth. Flossing is essentially just movement while putting pressure onto the system of tissues. 

The pin and stretch method: 

The pin and stretch method works by laying on the spot bothering you. Now, pin it down with pressure and move at your joint to cause a stretch of the muscle. Still focusing on the quad, lay over top of the roller and put pressure against your quad. Then, extend and flex at the knee joint (like a leg curl/leg extension motion). By pinning the tissue down and moving, you are forcing the muscle to lengthen and stretch.

The smash method:

This is exactly what it sounds like. Lay on the roller and just smash your tissue with pressure. Some like to use something heavier like a kettlebell or a barbell to apply more than a roller will allow. It is definitely painful if you have gunky tissues. But, it’s pretty darn effective at relieving pain the day after a tough leg workout. 

Here are some areas I like to focus on:

Take Home Message 

By now, I hope you have a better understanding of the foam roller and where it could fit in your routine. The next time you’re in the gym and you see one laying around, try to roll out different areas and see how various levels of pressure and angles feel to you. Go through the three methods hitting the specific spots in the gallery above.While it is not the end all be all magic pill, it can be a tool in your toolbox that helps your recovery process. This allows you to train at greater levels more frequently and be more successful in the long term. That’s what we’re all about and that’s how I’m trying to help you. 


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