Once a tool used only by elite athletes, you’ll now find foam rollers in every gym or yoga studio floor around the country. Hey, you might even have one at home. Beachbody trainers love them and some workouts even feature them. What exactly are the benefits of foam rolling, how often should you be doing it, and – most importantly – does it really hurt?
What is Foam Rolling and How Does it Work?
Also referred to as self-myofascial release, foam rolling is essentially a form of self-massage that allows you to apply deep pressure to certain points of the body to release tightness and muscular tension.
“The principle is, that by applying direct and sweeping high mechanical loads to muscles and tissues, you stretch and massage the underlying tissues,” says Laura-Anne Furlong, Ph.D., a lecturer of biomechanics at Loughborough University in the UK. “This reduces thickening, adhesion, and tension of the fascia [connective tissue] and muscle and can potentially improve your athletic performance.”
How Can Foam Rolling Ease Muscle Tension?
According to Peter Dipple, head of sports and massage at leading London fitness studios, Ten Health & Fitness, “Foam rolling can help promote blood flow and break down scar tissue. It could also help maintain normal muscle length, reduce pain and soreness, increase range of motion, and aid in recovery. “Foam rolling is a great way to help relax your muscles. Even those who are inactive could see benefits, as foam rolling can help lengthen muscles that may have become tight from sitting at a desk all day.”
How Often Should You Foam Roll?
Ideally, every day. “The more you foam roll, the more your muscles respond to it,” says Dipple. “Ideally, you should do it daily — as you would stretching — although ease yourself into it by gradually building up the number of sessions you do.”
He recommends dedicating 10-20 minutes per session to foam rolling at least once a day to simply get out the kinks. “When you find an area of tension, work the area around it for about 30 seconds using short, slow strokes [or rolls] and follow this up with longer, slower (and more soothing) strokes over the whole length of the muscle.” The slower you can roll with control, he says, the more chances you give your muscles to relax and glean deeper benefits from foam rolling.
As for the hurting thing? Well, it might feel uncomfortable, especially when you first start rolling. “When you’re working an area of tension, you’re applying your body weight to a tender area so you may well feel some discomfort. But if the pain is excruciating, stop immediately. Likewise, if you’re suffering from a serious injury, seek advice from a medical or fitness professional before foam rolling.”
Furlong also says that foam rolling is not recommended for those who suffer from diabetes or peripheral neuropathy, osteoporosis and several other chronic conditions. If you’re at all unsure whether you should foam roll, consult your health practitioner before rolling.
2 Super-Simple Foam Roller Stretches
Hamstrings (rear thighs)
Sit up with the foam roller under your right leg at the hamstring muscles and use your other foot and hands to maneuver that leg deeper into the roller. Roll up and down the length of your tight hamstrings on your right leg slowly 10-12 times, and repeat on the other leg. [Photo at the top of the screen.]
Middle back (posture muscles)
Lie back on the foam roller with knees bent and the roller positioned across your middle back (or your bra line if you have one!) Use your feet for support as you slowly roll up toward the top of the shoulders and down toward the lower back. Repeat 10-12 repetitions. [See photo above.]
4 Foam Roller Mistakes to Avoid
1 Avoid rolling directly onto your lower vertebrae. “Your lower back muscles will contract to help protect the spine which can cause discomfort or injury,” he say.
2 Do not hold your breath, though it’s tempting when discomfort hits. Instead, says Dipple, take long, deep breaths as you roll in order to increase blood flow to the working muscles. This allows them to relax, which means you get more benefit from every rolling session.
3 Stop rolling evenly to each side. “If it’s your right leg that has an issue, do spend more time on that side. Don’t neglect your other leg, but don’t worry about doing exactly the same on both sides,” Dipple says. Focus on the muscles and joints that need more TLC, even if that’s mostly on one side of your body.
4. Avoid rolling too quickly! Longer, slower, more measured strokes will send effective messages to the brain, telling your muscles to relax.
Foam Rollers We Love!
P90X2 Foam Roller. At 31 inches in length, the P90X2 Foam Roller has plenty of room to play with, so it’s great for working more than one body part at a time.
Tai Cheng Foam Roller. This 18-inch roller is easy to store, ideal for use in apartments or offices where space is at a premium.
P90X2 RumbleRoller. If you really want to up the pressure, the raised nodules on the P90X2 RumbleRoller get deep into your muscles, making for an extra-intense massage.
My mini roller. At just 5.5 inches, this mini roller can be popped in your gym bag or handbag and perfect for targeting smaller areas like the foot, forearm, shin, or calf.
GRID Foam Roller. The 3D surface has a number of bands of varying widths designed to replicate the feel of a massage therapists’ hands. Comes in a fun selection of colors, too.