Unlike Chamillionaire, when we see you rollin’, we’re definitely not hatin’.
Foam rolling is one of the gratifying muscle releases there is. We’ve all felt the satisfaction of sore arms and legs feeling eased and relaxed during a rolling session after a hard workout. It hurts so good, sometimes you don’t want to stop.
The explanations behind why foam rolling works feels good are hotly contested. While the benefits of it have been claimed to include everything from warming up your muscles to releasing tension to helping you to recover faster after a workout, did you ever pause in your rolling routine to ask how it actually benefits you?
While there is conclusive scientific research on the subject, it’s limited. A small study from 2018 from the University of Stirling discovered that after a session of foam rolling, it took less effort for muscles to produce the same amount of force than it did before.
Another small study published in the Journal of Athletic Training suggested that engaging in foam rolling after you’ve worked out can help reduce delayed-onset muscle soreness, which would then in turn boost performance in later workouts.
There’s also evidence from a review in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy that foam rolling can help to promote short-term increases in the range of motion achieved by muscles and can boost flexibility. This translates to you feeling less tight and being able to work out better and more efficiently.
While this is all good news for the foam roller currently propped against your bedroom wall, these studies are small and don’t definitively pinpoint just what it is about foam rolling that makes you feel better.
Lewis J. Macgregor, Ph.D., is the lead author of the University of Stirling study and is also an exercise physiologist. ‘It is hard to say why scientific evidence is lagging behind popularity,’ he says. ‘I suppose it is just the usual case that it takes a long time to build up the level of research that is needed to provide solid evidence on any technique or intervention.’
So while initial evidence looks good, it’s not yet conclusive or final. However, foam rolling is still the go-to recommendation thanks to what professionals have observed it can achieve in clinical settings. That means that you can ahead and start (or continue) using it for warming up before a workout and warming down afterwards, for improving mobility and flexibility and for helping with pain and soreness.
So what is the reason that it helps? There are a few leading theories.
Number one revolves around myofascial release. Polly de Mille, R.N., C.S.C.S., director of performance services at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, explains what this means. ‘Think of fascia as the sausage casing surrounding every muscle fiber, every organ, every nerve fiber, every bone in the human body,’ de Mille, says.
These layers help to give muscles their shape and to attach to bones and tendons to allow you to weightlift, squat, bike and stretch. By themselves, fascia are not very pliable, which could limit your range of motion and make your body feel tight and stiff. Additionally, fascia can form tangled and lose elasticity following injury, disease or inflammation. ‘The tissue binds to each other, loses elasticity, and forms taut bands of tissue that can be painful,’ de Mille says.
Thus, applying pressure and moving the fascia around, even a small amount, can help your fascia and your muscles to relax and become more flexible.
Another possible explanation for the benefits of foam rolling is the literal warming up of your muscles. The friction from it could help to increase the temperature of your muscles and fascia, which helps to loosen joints and tissues and increase the range of motion. In the same way, foam rolling post-workout increases blood flow to the areas you work on, which can help to speed up recovery time and minimise delayed-onset muscle soreness.
Your brain could also be involved in the process. Macgregor says, ‘It seems more likely that, when we foam roll, embedded nerve receptors are being stimulated in that region, rather than any structural alterations occurring. This can still lead to a perceived “releasing” effect, which is the feeling that people seek when they foam roll.’ Or in other words, foam rolling triggers nerve receptors which then talk to the brain, which responds by telling your muscles to relax and feel good and could even reduce pain signals.
As for that foam rolling pain that you just can’t get enough of after a long run? You’re stimulating the pain receptors that are compressed within your muscles and tissue. However, it shouldn’t hurt too much - and if it does, that could be a problem. In this case, more pain definitely doesn’t equal more gain.
You could be pressing too hard, have existing muscle damage or an injury, or rolling tissues that you shouldn’t be. As with any exercise or technique, if it induces sharp, serious pain that doesn’t improve, you should check in with a doctor as it could be an injury. If you’re pressing too hard, the pain you feel is an indicator to stop rather than a sign that technique is working.
So what’s the best way to reap the benefits of foam rolling? Focus only on your muscles, and do it little and often. A good starter foam rolling plan is to roll your glutes, quads, hamstrings, calves, traps, lats and your shoulder and arm muscles on a near-daily basis. As with all things, consistency is king and the benefits of foam rolling are short-lived, so spending an hour rolling one evening won’t mean you see benefits in a fortnight’s time.
Rolling before and after workouts is a good guide - or simply any time your body feels tight or sore. Go slow and steady, spending around 30 seconds on each section you want to target. Give each spot a few passes with the roller, then move on - this is your body, not a batch of pizza dough.