Updated: Feb 26
(An extension of the article: Injury - Prevention is Better than the Cure)
We all know that exercise results in minor microtrauma; that is, microscopic tears in the muscle fibres. Over time, and if not adequately treated, this can result in excessive inflammation and scar tissue which in turn increases our susceptibility to injury.
"Inflammation is the body's response to tissue injury caused by pressure, friction, repeated load or overload . . ."
A simple and highly effective way to aid post-exercise recovery is though myofascial release. This is where controlled pressure is applied to the muscles breaking down knots, releasing tension, removing metabolic waste and encouraging blood flow.
One method we can use to get the benefits of myofascial release is through foam rolling. Though by no means a substitution for a good sports therapist, the foam roller offers us an inexpensive supplementary method of reducing exercise-induced muscle dysfunctions whilst enhancing muscle relaxation and encouraging repair (Healey 2014).
Foam roller frenzy
Due to its recent increase in popularity there has been a deluge of foam rolling related information poured onto the internet over the past year or two. Some of that information is sound, some not so sound.
After reading through various sources on how to foam roll and the best techniques, I have attempted to distil the deluge into a cup-sized encapsulation. This will provide you with accurate and safe advice without wasting hours wading though a mire of information.
Following the How 2 I have compiled a comprehensive list of dos and don’ts whilst also sourcing a range of highly rated foam rollers for the reader who has yet to invest in this important piece of equipment.
Prior to foam rolling you should firstly prepare your environment. Personally I prefer to roll in a warm room and over a Yoga mat – the mat stops the roller from slipping and sliding. Also, I tend to roll after a 15 minute Yoga session as the muscles are loosened off somewhat.
Identify the area that you plan to focus on and, once you’ve manoeuvred into position, roll from the muscle insertion point to the origin. By doing this you will be rolling in the direction of the heart which mirrors the method adopted by sports therapists. The theory behind this practice is that by massaging towards the heart metabolic waste-laden blood is forced back into circulation where it can be re-oxygenated and purified. Irrespective of whether or not there is any merit to this theory it won’t hurt to adopt it when rolling.
Traditionally the advice was to roll across the fascia the way a baker applies a rolling pin to a recalcitrant lump of pastry – back and forward, back and forward until it is flat as pancake and smooth as marble. However, emerging studies have shown that better outcomes are experienced when, on locating a particularly tight patch of fascia or a nasty knot, we pause in the position.
Some dos and don’ts of foam rolling
Do: get in the habit of rolling regularly – not just when you feel a bit stiff.
Don’t: roll sore muscles – recent studies have shown that if we roll damaged muscle tissue, or muscles in which we are experiencing nasty DOMS, we could inadvertently make matters worse.
Do: apply gentle pressure evenly over the fascia – including focusing on origin and insertion points.
Don’t: roll over the lumbar spine – this is quite dangerous as it places acute pressure on a segment of the vertebrae. It is fine to roll the area of the back around the thoracic region but even so I advise exercising excessive caution.
Do: relax your breathing whilst rolling.
How long and how often should I roll for?
If you've never rolled before and you're just starting out, I would advise aiming for three 5 minute roll sessions per week. When after maintaining this regime for a month look to increase the number of weekly sessions; perhaps to 4 or 5. However, we really should aim for a daily 5 to 10 minute roll. For some it might be difficult to maintain such high frequency practice. But by implementing a rigid regime, say dedicating the first part of your day to stretching and foam rolling, you will significantly increase active participation.
For a guide on foam rolling exercises click on the video below.
Foam rolling is a highly effective, not to mention inexpensive, way to enjoy the benefits of myofascial release. By spending a mere 5 to 10 minutes rolling each day we will break down knots, release tension, remove (or recirculate) metabolic waste and encourage blood flow into damaged tissue. This small investment could pay us back with the enormous reward of reduced injury susceptibility.
Product review - 4 excellent foam rollers
Before purchasing a foam roller there are a couple of points you should first consider. Point one: the hardness of the roller. I know that sounds a bit odd, but if you're the type with soft buttery flesh who is quite sensitive to the touch, a hard-plastic roller will probably feel as though you're being squished under a tram. If a roll session induces too much discomfort you are less likely to keep up your practice. I have a medium foam roller and that still makes me yelp when I work the quads.
Second point: knobbly or not. Foam rollers that look more like a medieval torturing device, as opposed to a self-rehabilitation tool, have been designed that way so as to enable you to access deep muscle tissue. This they certainly do but the experience is intense. It's perhaps for this reason why knobbly rollers are more suited to the sadomasochist or seasoned roller. I would advise the beginner to start with a medium foam roller and over time build up to knobbly hard-plastic.
1: Fit Nation Foam Roller (£14.95)
Product Overview (click on the image for availability)
Free exercise book
Ultra lightweight material
Ideal for all athletes
Knobbly design enables targeted massage
This is a very well rated product which has currently received over 3500 positive reviews. It's a knobbly roller made from hard plastic so will enable you to access deep tissue while breaking down all those nasty knots.
2: Trigger Point Performance GRID Foam Roller (£39.99)
Product Overview (click image for availability)
Twice as firm as the original Grid.
Ideal for dense tissue or deeper muscle compression.
Designed to withstand constant, heavy and repeated use without breaking down.
Unique distrodensity zone design allows for targeted massage.
Unique design allows for targeted massage.
The trigger point foam roller from GRID is a step down in sadomasochism. Yes it is made from hard foam and is knobbly, but as has more smooth surface area the rolling experience will not be as intense (it'll still hurt like hell when you hit the ITB band though). This roller has received over 2000 positive reviews - that's one popular piece of foam!
3: Maximo Fitness Foam Roller (£16.99)
Product Overview (click image for availability)
Firm enough to provide support but not hard enough to be uncomfortable.
Applications include muscle massage, sports rehabilitation, physiotherapy, Pilates and Yoga.
Lighter and longer than other rollers, it is very easy to carry in your gym bag or stow away at home.
Another terrific product from Maximo Fitness. It's rare that you see products with over 2000 reviews and still sporting five stars. Show offs! This is classed as medium density meaning that, every time you roll you won't be reenacting Mel Gibson in the end scene of Braveheart (where he's being stretched on the rack), but you'll still achieve a thoroughly good myofascial release session.
4: BODYMATE medium-hard foam roller (£11.76)
Big enough (L30 and D15cm) for full-body training, yet lightweight and easy to carry.
The BODYMATE standard fascial roller is the perfect training aid for deep tissue muscle massage which can help improve your blood circulation, increase your strength, combat pain and activate the deep tissue.
Free exercise book with 25 illustrated exercises using the fascial roller.
What can I say, this is the HappyShopper of foam rollers - but don't sneer your nose up! It is perfect for the beginner or the person who bruises as easily as an Aldi plum. I've got one just like it and it has served me well for years. This is a well rated roller which has received 1800 reviews with 4.5 stars
Get rolling . . . today!
(As we are very interested in user feedback at Hungry4Fitness, I would be very grateful if you could take a few seconds out of your day to leave a comment. Thanks in advance!)
Adam Priest is a former Royal Marines Commando, personal trainer, lecturer, boxing and Thai boxing enthusiast.
Peterson. L, Renström. P (2001) Sports Injurues: Their Preventon and Treatment; 3rd Edition. Taylor & Francis Publication. United Kingdom.