We are aware that working out or doing any form of exercise is good for the body—and it is. In fact, a study suggests that exercise can act as a drug because of its many pharmacological benefits.
According to research, an increase in energy expenditure due to physical activity can help lower mortality rates by up to 20%. This means that exercise doesn’t only promote health by allowing you to change your lifestyle, but it also helps you increase your lifespan.
But with all the wonders of exercise, it’s also no secret that muscle soreness is one of the biggest reasons for people to skip their workouts or stop exercising altogether.
It is painful, uncomfortable and even debilitating that some people have to stay in bed for a day or two just to recover from an intense workout.
Now if you’re one of those who have suffered from muscle soreness, you’ve probably heard about foam rolling and how it helps with those post-workout aches and pains.
What is foam rolling?
Foam rolling and muscle soreness have been linked together for years now. In fact, it’s not uncommon for you to hear a personal trainer or workout buddy recommend it.
Foam rolling is the method where you use a tool called a foam roller that resembles a big, upholstered tube to roll a part of your body before or after a workout.
Michael Bento, a seasoned personal trainer at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital talks highly about this method: “Foam rolling seems to make muscles more receptive to stretching and moving. It’s the best thing I’ve found to make people feel better immediately in the 25 years I’ve been doing this.”
How does foam rolling relieve muscle soreness?
How is foam rolling and muscle soreness exactly related? Foam rolling is a self-administered myofascial release (SMR) method that means you are using your own body weight together with precisely controlled motions to stimulate and relax your muscles.
According to Bento: “The current theory is that the sustained pressure in the muscle signals the central nervous system to reduce tension, similar to the effect of a deep tissue massage.”
The research about foam rolling also suggests that this technique doesn’t only loosen tight and achy muscles. It also helps warm up your body before a workout and help it recover faster after, according to Pablo B. Costa, PhD., an associate professor of kinesiology at California State University, Fullerton.
A 2018 study conducted by the University of Stirling in the UK involving 16 subjects also revealed that foam rolling helped individuals produce less effort while working out, which helped reduce their fatigue after their exercise routine.
Another study conducted by the Journal of Athletic Training involving 8 subjects also suggested that post-workout foam rolling helps reduce delayed-onset muscle soreness.
This results in better and more consistent workouts because you don’t have to suffer from all the aches from the previous workout.
Foam rolling is also associated with a better range of motion, although more research should be conducted to prove this theory. A study involving 11 athletes revealed that combining static stretching and foam rolling improved range of motion better than just doing one of these pre-workout stretches.
This is also supported by a comprehensive review for the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy where researchers concluded that foam rolling does support better range of motion.
Polly de Mille, R.N., C.S.C.S., director of performance services at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City explained that foam rolling increase range of motion by improving muscle flexibility. This means that you feel less tight while working out so you can perform better through your routines.
Now, we already know that foam rolling relieves muscle soreness. But the question is: how exactly does foam rolling work? There are still not enough studies to answer this question in detail. But there are good theories that could explain why foam rolling and muscle soreness are related, one of which is myofascial release.
De Mille describes fascia as “the sausage casing surrounding every muscle fiber, every organ, every nerve fiber, every bone in the human body.”
It’s like that very thin layer of tissue that you find in chicken breast. Fascia has several layers and it wraps around muscle fibers and cells. Muscle fascia is the hardest among these layers and it usually causes the feeling of tightness on your muscles when you work out.
De Mille adds: “That’s especially true if the fibers that make up your muscle fascia form what’s called ‘adhesions’ or trigger points. Ideally, all of these fibers are sliding by each other with ease as you move, like silky hair, but sometimes these fibers can get like hair that got some ice cream in it and it’s all stuck together.”
This scenario happens when the muscle has been tightened due to lack of activity, inflammation or trauma, and when the tissues lose elasticity altogether, that causes the pain that you’re feeling when and after working out.
But since muscle fascia is thixotropic meaning that it takes time to decrease viscosity with shear rate and time of shear, myofascial release helps get back the integrity of the tissues by allowing the fascia to separate and the muscle to relax and increase its flexibility.
Lewis J. Macgregor, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist and lead author of the University of Stirling study has another theory that involves neurological changes within the muscles.
He explains: “It seems more likely that, when we foam roll, imbedded 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.”
What are the other benefits of foam rolling?
Aside from relieving muscle soreness, improving flexibility and protecting against injury, some studies also suggest that it could temporarily reduce the appearance of cellulite due to the loosening and breaking up of fascia. But if you want to reduce cellulite permanently, you still need to live a healthier lifestyle that combines regular exercise and a healthy diet.
A study involving 60 adults with fibromyalgia also revealed that those who did foam rolling for 20 weeks reported less fatigue, stiffness and pain compared to those who didn’t try it.
Some people also do foam rolling because it helps them relax, although there are still no studies to suggest that that SMR can reduce stress more than rest.
Is foam rolling safe?
For some, foam rolling is absolutely enjoyable while for others, it is downright painful. But the real question is: is foam rolling safe?
Generally, foam rolling is a safe pre- and post-workout routine, especially if you always experience muscle tightness and soreness when you exercise.
The only time you should avoid foam rolling is when you’ve had a previous injury involving a muscle break or tear.
In this case, you should consult your physician or physical therapist first to make sure you don’t incur any injuries while foam rolling.
What are the types of foam rollers?
There are different types of foam rollers on the market depending on your needs and budget. The most common foam rollers will cost you at least $10 and they are made with firm, compressed foam, are usually 6 inches in diameter and 12-36 inches long.
Smooth rollers are best for beginners because they offer a smoother texture that’s perfect for pre-workout rolls. Textured rollers, on the other hand, have knobs and ridges that provide more intensity during rolls making them excellent for relieving muscle tension.
You can also buy foam massage balls for specific muscle areas like the shoulders and foam-covered massage sticks that are perfect for the upper back and legs.
How do you choose the right foam roller?
When choosing the right foam roller for you, think about three factors, shape and size, surface texture and density. The density of a foam roller will determine its efficiency at massaging the deep tissues.
A foam roller that’s too soft may not give you the effect that you want but using one that’s too hard could easily cause pain and injury. This is why it’s best to try different types of foam rollers before deciding on the right density for you.
You should also decide between a smooth and textured roller. As discussed earlier, smooth rollers are perfect for beginners while textured rollers are great once you get into the groove of foam rolling.
Of course, there’s the shape and size of your foam roller, which will depend on your height and size.
Long rollers are around 36 inches while shorter ones are around 24 inches. The standard roller can also measure 5-6 inches in diameter, although there are 3-4-inch ones for those who want deeper massages.
Are you ready to give foam rolling a try? Although this method still requires more studies to prove its real benefits, those who’ve tried foam rolling can attest to its efficiency in helping relieve muscle soreness and tension.