“I’m just too sore to do a workout. I can’t do it.” That’s what fitness trainer Peter Davies heard from one of his clients.
After a bit of prompting for more information, Davies suggested his client tackle her shoulder pain with a foam roller. And, amazingly, in five minutes, his client was ready for exercise.
“The foam roller is a great tool for everyone to have at home because it’s so simple to use,” Davies says. “You don’t have to have a massive amount of knowledge to use it – just a quick session with a trainer or physical therapist. That could give you the way forward to maintain a healthy range of mobility.”
Welcome to foam rolling, also known as self-myofascial release. It’s a regular part of life for professional athletics, coaches, therapists and, increasingly, average people as part of their fitness routine.
“In a nutshell, it’s a self-massage tool that assists in relieving tight muscles and some users report improvement in their physical activity with the relief of these tight muscles,” says Beth Sheehan, Professional Practice Advisor at Exercise & Sports Science Australia (ESSA).
The foam roller is one option to alleviate issues in the short term to increase flexibility along with a stretching program. Check with your doctor or physical therapist before you start wielding the roller, though. It’s not ideal for those with significant spinal issues, arthritic knees or bursitis, for example.
Popular health and fitness website, Dr Mercola, suggests using it daily. “Its benefits are often compared to getting a massage, because as you roll on it, fibrous tissue is broken down and circulation is boosted, helping to relieve tension and pain.” Here’s their advice to steer you away from making the top five foam-rolling mistakes. In short, don’t roll a joint or bone and avoid rolling on your lower back.
Rollers are great for relieving tight muscles and retaining mobility
The foam roller’s benefits have the backing of science, too. One study found using a foam roller on painful hamstrings for just five to 10 seconds could lead to “significant increases in range of motion”. Other research cited showed older women who used the device for balance training improved their dynamic balance in just five weeks.
“In a report by the International Journal of Sport Rehabilitation, some individuals report that if using the foam roller post exercise, there’s less delayed onset of muscle soreness that they experience in the next 48 to 72 hours,” says Sheehan.
Sheehan has been using foam rollers clinically for about seven years, mostly with clients who have lower limb muscle complaints. That includes tight hip flexors, tight pecs or protracted shoulders, for example. (The rollers hail back to practitioners using the Feldenkrais method in the 1980s.)
“Foam rollers are an option for [people] to self-manage their musculoskeletal complaints. Like any exercise tool, you need to find what works for you. Not everyone gets the same benefits from the same piece of equipment,” Sheehan says.
One downside is the pain you may have to put up with while using one, says trainer Davies.
“Foam rolling can be quite painful and it works best on a hard surface. The addition of ridges and bumps can add to the discomfort. And too much discomfort can often lead to a piece of equipment not being used.”
On the plus side, results are almost always felt immediately after rolling, Davies added.
You could also use a tennis ball or hand-held versions of the foam roller, but that’s usually not as effective.
As well, Sheehan says if you have balance or mobility issues, it might be tricky getting onto the floor and up again to use the foam roller.
“If mobility is an issue, some clinicians will place clients on a plinth or Pilates trapeze table, which is often softer but at a better height for them to be able to utilise the roller.” She also recommends you consult an exercise professional before using the roller for the first time.
Davies says: “The foam roller is absolutely for people over 50, especially if either regaining or retaining a useful range of mobility is important to the individual.”
Have you ever used a foam roller?