Do I need a foam roller?

You may have seen videos on TikTok, or maybe your physio or gym buddy has recommended one as part of your warm up or cool down… but what is foam rolling and is it worth the hassle?

Foam rollers can be a great addition to your stretching or self massage routine because they are relatively inexpensive and you can use them independently. They are also available in various sizes, colours, densities and textures, but before you start scrolling through Amazon looking for a roller to match your coordinated gym kit, take a moment to consider the benefits of foam rolling and if foam rolling is right for you.

🔺 Your gym buddy or personal trainer may have recommended a foam roller, but have you actually considered the benefits or if it’s worth your while?

What are the benefits of a foam roller?

The buzzword here is myofascial release. Secondary school biology would have us believe that we only have skin, muscles, organs and some veins – at least this was the case in my day! The truth however, goes much deeper than that.

You’d be right in thinking that muscles attach to bones and this is what helps us move around, but what a lot of people don’t know is that surrounding, criss-crossing and interconnecting all our soft tissue are layers of fascia. This fascia, which is primarily made up of collagen, is what helps us hold our shape. It also plays an important role in transmitting the contractile force of a muscle to neighboring muscles.

🔺 Surrounding, criss-crossing and interconnecting all our soft tissue are layers of fascia.

Think of your fascia as a skin-tight, mesh-like t-shirt. Injury or periods of immobility can reduce the elasticity and gliding abilities of these fascial structures, leading to adhesions and ultimately altered tension in the myofascial (myo meaning ‘muscle’) network.

Have you ever told your therapist that you have shoulder pain and they start examining your back, your hips…even your neck? Well, there’s a good reason for that. Imagine tying a knot in your t-shirt, somewhere around the waist. You would notice that the t-shirt would no longer hang smoothly, it would have lines in it. Not only that, if you tried to lift your arms above your head you would notice that the tension in the fabric would be different. Make a big enough knot in your t-shirt and you could restrict the movement of your arms all together. This is what happens when the myofascial network gets interrupted. Your body’s ability to effectively transmit the force generated by your muscles gets inhibited.

That’s where your foam roller comes in.

How does foam rolling work?

Much like a Sports Massage, you can use your foam roller to apply sweeping continuous pressure to your muscles, helping to warm the fascial layers, work out adhesions and restore soft tissue elasticity.

🔺 Foam rolling can have a similar – albeit ‘lighter’ – effect to sports massage.

One study examining the effect of foam rolling on recreational runners between the age of 20 – 45 years found that even just one session can improve muscle flexibility. Additionally, there is research that suggests that combining foam rolling with a stretching program can also have a more positive effect in the short term than just foam rolling alone. 

Keeping hydrated is also important because when you foam roll you are effectively squeezing fluid out of your fascia and muscles, then once you roll away there is a re-inflow to the targeted tissue.

How do I use my foam roller?

To get the best out of your foam roller it’s a good idea to know what muscles you are trying to target. It might be your quads (the front of your thighs), your hamstrings (the back of your thighs) or even your glutes (your butt!).

🔺 It’s important to identify which muscles you wish to target for foam rolling.

All the muscles in your body have an origin and an insertion point – basically, a beginning and an end. You don’t need a degree in anatomy to get the best out of your foam roller, but a good starting point would be to try and roll the whole length of the muscle you are targeting. For example, if you were to roll your quads (that’s the front of your thigh) you would start just above the knee and roll all the way up to just below your pelvis and repeat in the opposite direction. You will need to use your own bodyweight to get the desired effect, however for those with a low tolerance to discomfort, this may take some getting used to. Our advice is to go slow, take your time and stop if you feel the need.

person using foam roller
🔺 You will need to use your own bodyweight for effective foam rolling.

Is foam rolling supposed to hurt?

As with any exercise or rehabilitation, there can be a degree of discomfort. However, the severity of this would vary based on a number of key factors, including:

  • The areas you are focusing on
  • The level of pressure being applied
  • The amount of time you are exercising with your foam roller
  • Any previous injury / pain which you may be carrying

If you are feeling a significant level of pain or discomfort, you should seek medical advice from a healthcare professional.

When should I use my foam roller?

Traditionally, foam rolling has been used as part of cool down routines and in exercise recovery. However, there is small but growing evidence that it can also be used as part of your warm up routine.

🔺 Foam rolling can be highly beneficial as part of your warm up or cool down routines.

One study found that when foam rolling was included as part of a dynamic warm up, power, agility, strength, and speed improved by around 4-7%. It’s important to note that the study didn’t account for any difference in participants’ body weight, or whether different foam rolling techniques could have a more positive or negative effect. However, the bottom line is that foam rolling shouldn’t replace your dynamic warm up, but when used in combination, it may help to give you that little bit extra over your opponent. 

When foam rolling isn’t good

Despite all the potential benefits that come with foam rolling, there are times when it isn’t what your body needs, especially if you have an underlying health condition. This is because foam rolling is incredibly manual, and the mechanical forces used to roll with a foam roller squash and stretch our soft tissue – that is the skin, muscles, veins, tendons, ligaments and even the bones holding us together.

🔺 Avoid using a foam roller too soon after sustaining a significant injury.

Cuts, bruises, fresh open wounds are a big ‘no’ when it comes to foam rolling, as are broken bones. As with any new injury, our bodies need time to get the healing process started, and that means inflammation. Once a wound is closed and the inflammation starts to subside, your injury will enter a new phase called ‘remodeling’, and this is when your foam roller can help. 

Foam rolling with underlying health conditions

Complex, underlying health conditions are another thing to bear in mind when it comes to foam rolling.

If you have a condition, such as diabetes, that can affect your sensitivity or response to pain, it’s a really good idea to discuss foam rolling with your GP before getting stuck in. Conditions like myositis ossificans, osteomyelitis or blood clots like ‘deep vein thrombosis’ or haemophilia can also lead to significant complications as a result of mismanaged exercise routines. Consider if foam rolling is the best solution for you, and if not, you may need to put it off for a while or find a better alternative.

🔺 If you have a long term health condition such as diabetes, it is worth consulting your GP before introducing foam rolling to your exercise routine.

Foam rolling: is it worth it?

Foam rolling can be an excellent supplementary routine as part of a wider fitness program, and users can reap the benefits as part of their warm up or cool down routine.

However, if you have any concerns about foam rolling or would like more advice on how to use a foam roller properly, we highly recommend that you speak with a professional for more advice.

Find out more

To find out more about a phased return to sporting activity or how Jenkins Soft Tissue Therapy can help you with sports massage or other treatments, contact us today.