Compiled by our Masters trained Physiotherapist Chris Smith. To book an appointment with Chris, or read his Meet the Team profile CLICK HERE


Foam rollers have grown in popularity over the last decade as a key piece of kit in gyms and home exercise settings. Their uses may vary from warm up prior to exercise, to for recovery afterwards, or simply to increase flexibility to aid in an exercise program. But what benefits do foam rollers provide us with and how might these be achieved in practice?

Research

A recent research review looking at the efficacy of foam rollers found they were better for some things that others (see here). For example, there may be a benefit in sprint performance following pre-foam rolling prior to sports activity. However, in recreational athletes, up to 62% of the population are likely to experience benefits in flexibility from pre-foam rolling as a warm-up prior to sport. Furthermore, this increased flexibility has been shown to be produced from as little as 30 seconds on a foam roller in the hamstring muscles. It has been suggested that these benefits may be due to increase in intramuscular temperature and blood flow. Also, foam rolling may stimulate pressure cells in our muscles which relay information to our brain to reduce pain sensation. This in turn may increase our stretch response to enable us to get a little more range in our downward dog!

When it comes to recovery, the main finding was that post-exercise foam rolling can help with reducing muscle pain sensation or soreness. This is important as muscle soreness has the potential to reduce performance in relation to sprinting, jumping and strength training. Therefore, if we can reduce soreness through foam rolling then this may provide some benefit to further athletic performance. However, this should not be used as an alternative to appropriate physical and mental rest, sleep and nutrition in your training to allow appropriate muscle and soft tissue recovery.

Application

Foam rollers can be likened to a form of self massage, providing some of the health benefits of manual therapy applied by a physiotherapist or massage therapist, although without that human connection and therapeutic relationship, which has a large role to play in positive outcomes. However, multiple lockdowns this year have left us working from home without the option of visiting our favorite therapists.Therefore, a foam roller provides a great self-management option during lockdown, holidays or when away on business and you can't see your therapist.

Take home message

A foam roller can be a great addition to your warm up routine. Only spend 30-60 seconds on each area and then perform a dynamic warm up and stretch routine after to increase flexibility and blood flow prior to exercise. There is no need to spend 10 minutes rolling an area. If you’re going to roll for recovery 2 x 45-60 seconds on each major muscle group to reduce muscle soreness as part of a cool down, which should include adequate physical and mental rest, sleep and nutrition.

If you don't yet have a foam roller as part of your exercise equipment visit our online store to see our range on offer.

Should I get a massage or see a physio?

If you’re in doubt, it’s probably best to see a physiotherapist first. Massage is a maintenance and self care tool, but it might not get to the reason behind why you feel an area needs some attention. If an area feels stiff or sore, seeing the physio will allow them to assess and diagnose the issue, and figure out if massage is appropriate. Often people can jump into a massage a bit too early, and end up making their issue worse.

Once your issue is stable and safe, then asking your physio if you're ready to see a massage therapist can really help with longer term maintenance. It’s often a nice reward for a job well done after a month of diligent rehab. As with all hands on treatment, remember that the massage is a cherry on the top of your plan, the bulk of your management should be homework!

Do foam rollers work?

Absolutely, there’s a reason that they are such a staple in so many different fitness environments. One big reason why massage, manipulation and other types of manual therapy get criticised is that you don’t want to build too much of a dependence on other people to manage your aches and niggles, so foam rollers allow you to take some of that power into your own hands.

Massage in some form or another has been used in sport and exercise at least as far back as the Roman gladiators, and for good reason. Self massage with foam rollers can be used to improve recovery times after workouts, to lengthen restricted muscles and even to copy the “cracking” or “pops” that you get to free up a stiff spine. Similar to other types of exercise kit, if you’re not already comfortable with foam rollers, make sure that you check in with a physiotherapist or good personal trainer to show you a few techniques before you bring them into your weekly routine.

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