Liz Alvis Parry
It’s a ubiquitous piece of kit lurking in most gyms, studios and fitness pros’ homes - but while we all know we should probably use a foam roller more, we might not know what *exactly* it does. For one thing, it can hurt. Unlike a soothing stretch after a workout, rolling tired muscles over a foam roller - which is usually a smooth or sometimes noduled tube - can induce more grimaces than the gym session itself. However, it’s definitely worth persevering because the benefits are numerous.
“We think foam rolling forms a ‘massage' type effect on the muscle tissue in the body to help improved drainage, reduced muscle tightness and affect local muscle reflexes,” explains osteopath Stephen Makinde from The Perfect Balance Clinic [https://www.perfectbalanceclinic.com]. “Largely, we use it to relax tight muscles, aid muscle recovery and help mobilise joints.”
One explanation for its potent power is that foam rolling targets the fascia - the thin, elastic connective tissue that wraps around your cells and muscles, connects tendons and bones, and support the structures within our body. While overuse, illness or injury can make the fascia become taut, by using the roller, it is said to encourage the fascia to become malleable and, as a knock-on effect, help make our muscles more flexible.
With flexibility crucial for longterm quality of life, finding ways to stay supple should feature somewhere in your workout regime. This is where a foam roller can help. A study in the Journal of Sports Rehabilitation found that combining foam rolling with static stretching helped increase range of motion more than stretching alone.
Meanwhile, when it comes to recovery, research published in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy found that foam rolling reduced perceived pain after an intense bout of exercise. So if you’re training heavily or building towards an endurance event such as a marathon, a foam roller might just be the secret weapon to help you get through training and stay smiling.
But if you’re not one for 5am HIIT classes or seven-times-a-week workouts (which is probably a good thing as rest days are just as important), it doesn’t mean that foam rolling shouldn’t be incorporated into your routine. “You don’t only need to foam roll if you run or do strenuous exercise,” says Makinde. “Daily stretching and foam rolling can help to maintain flexibility as part of a programme. Typically, we advise you to do this after exercise not before, but some people have different methods so may give other advice around this. But ideally, you want to do it as part of your post-workout strategy.”
As for the pain factor, while rolling slowly until you reach a pressure point then pushing down until tension eases is advised, keep an eye out for any intense, sudden or unrelenting pain. Rolling on sore, overworked muscles might feel tender - particularly if you’ve not been so vigilant about warming up/warming down in the first place - but extreme pain is definitely not essential to reap the benefits of foam rolling - in fact, aggressively rolling on an injury could make things worse. See your doctor if you’re worried or talk to an osteopath or physio to create a bespoke plan to suit your fitness needs.