If you’re anything like me you’ve spent most of your life thinking that rest and recovery are only a small part of a healthy lifestyle and can easily be skipped. The importance of recovery is rarely talked about but can be key to a healthy body that can efficiently train, while reducing post-workout muscle strain. Post-workout recovery can include a lot of things like getting enough water, eating a good meal, adequate sleep, and stretching, but one that is not always talked about is foam rolling!
Now foam rolling was something I didn’t think was important until about 2 years ago. I had never tried it, but I began to see a lot of my co-workers in theatre using them. These performers spent hours on their feet a day, trained their body and oftentimes would be learning complicated choreography. This took a toll on their body and they needed as many tools as possible to reduce muscle pain and keep from getting too tense to do their job properly. So many of these performers used foam rollers every day as part of their routine. Sometimes they would even use them twice a day, and I became curious if they could help me deal with some low back pain from a fractured spine many years ago. The short version is it has become my favorite tool for reducing pain and tension!
While there are many paths to taking care of your body post-exercise, professionals will agree that recovery is a must! These paths can include but are not limited to:
Having a proper low intensity cool down after exercise
Post exercise stretching/ muscle release technique (foam rolling is one!)
Adequate water intake
Eating a well-balanced meal
Hot or cold bath to stimulate blood flow
Benefits of Rest and Recovery
Now to understand the way foam rolling can really benefit you, it’s important to understand the overall benefits of rest and recovery! Now when we exercise, you actually create tiny tears to your muscles. When they rebuild, they come back bigger and stronger and that’s where muscle growth occurs. Without proper rest, though, those muscles do not have time to rebuild and that can make injury a more likely occurrence. Rest days are even important outside of weight lifting. No matter how you choose to move, you still need proper rest and time for the body to acclimate.
Other benefits of taking those days off the gym and getting some rest include:
Increased athletic performance and muscle growth, while reducing muscle fatigue
Reduces risk of injury
Promotes healthy sleeping patterns
Now a rest day doesn’t mean you have to spend all day sitting and watching tv, though if you want to, that’s your choice! You can also practice active rest days. That means you still get movement in with a low intensity activity like walking or biking. Active rest days when you are doing light exercise that doesn’t not strain the muscles, so you still promote muscle recovery. Active recovery is my preferred method, as when I take entire days off I tend to get a lot of muscle tightness I have to work out the next day.
Benefits of Foam Rolling
While muscle recovery can include many forms of stretching, it’s helpful to know how foam rolling, specifically, can be beneficial in conjunction to standard stretching. Some of the most notable benefits include:
Reducing post-exercise muscle soreness by releasing tension in tight muscles. This can lead to better workouts as you will be more likely to fully recover before your next training session.
Foam rolling is also great pre-workout as a warm-up. While studies on whether it’s better to foam roll before or after training is still in the works, there is no current downfalls of either. So the individual can choose which is best for them, or do both, as long as you keep your sessions quick.
It helps with increasing range of motion. If you notice reduced range of motion in your body, that is typically from overactive muscles that need some attention. Foam rolling is perfect for this! When foam rolling, you are applying pressure to a given muscle. You then hold pressure for 30-60 seconds and you will feel tension begin to release. Over time, these muscles will have less tension build up, thus improving range of motion.
Increased blood flow to muscles, which also contributes to exercise recovery.
Some studies have started to find there are benefits of foam roller for those with Fibromyalgia.
Generally it’s relaxing and can reduce overall stress that can help improve sleep.
*Smooth Foam Roller for Adductor Tightness
Personal Training and Diagnosing Movement Compensations
Now my love of foam rolling definitely grew after becoming a Certified Personal Trainer. As a trainer it is my job to look at the movement compensations of a body and figure out overactive and underactive muscles. When we have overactive muscles, or muscles that are excessively tight and keep other muscles from functioning at their best, we have to address them to get that body working the way it is meant to. Foam rolling combined with various styles of stretching, is key to releasing the extra tension in those muscles. Over time those “tight” muscles will begin to loosen and allow other muscles to engage the way they are meant to. I have many clients who have noticed a significant change after a few weeks of foam rolling. Some with knee and ankle pain and tightness that almost completely went away in a few weeks.
The amazing thing about the body is how muscles respond to stress. While one muscle may be a problem, it could impact all the surrounding muscles, as they work as a team!
*Cervical Spine Rolling with Textured Roller
How to Properly Foam Roll
Foam rolling is all about neuromuscular change. Basically that means that when we foam roll, we stimulate nerve receptors connected to the muscles, which leads to this feeling of “release” of tightness around certain muscles. While foam rolling is fairly simple in theory, there are some key things to remember.
1) Know what to roll and how to roll it out safely! The first thing you need to do is to identify what areas of the body are causing you concern. Maybe you have tight calves from lots of standing and walking. Once you have isolated areas of concern, it’s best to look up proper form in rolling those areas. There are so many free online sources you can use, like youtube! It can also be very beneficial to talk with a personal trainer or physical therapist and set up a consultation or assessment.
While you may feel tightness in one muscle, the issue may be from muscles in the surrounding areas. That’s when a trainer may be the best help. They can not only assess your overactive muscles, but they can also teach proper form.
When foam rolling, you want to find those tight areas and hold pressure for 30-90 seconds. You should feel a release in some tension.
2) Foam rolling should not be painful. A lot of people think you have to feel extreme pain otherwise it’s not working. That is incorrect! If you get to a place and the pain is extreme and it’s unbearable to hold, back off the area. You can try applying less pressure to the area/ lifting off the pressure point a bit. If the pain is still intense, you should avoid foam rolling that area. You can try some static stretches, but you may find you just need to rest the area and wait for the pain to subside. If you find the pain to still be persisting, that’s when you should make an appointment with a doctor to discuss a treatment plan.
3) Time under tension. The key is to hold tension in the area long enough for those nerve receptors to understand what is happening and those muscles to relax. A lot of people just quickly go up and down an area like the calves, and not hold on any tender spots. While you may still feel some relaxing and overall stretch, the real benefits of foam rolling require holding that time under tension!
4) You can over foam roll! The goal of foam rolling is not to hold pressure as long as you can, but to relax muscles. You can overdo it! Make sure you are not applying pressure longer than 90 seconds in a given area.
5) Total duration. The total time for a general foam rolling session should be 2-10 minutes. We should not be spending more than 2-3 minutes in a given area of the body, and no more than 10 minutes on the entire body. Again we can over do it, and that could lead to actually flaring up the muscles and making them more tense than they were to begin with. It can be helpful to have a stopwatch or timer to keep track of your time.
6) Time for noticeable results. While you will feel some general change in tightness immediately, the long term results will take time, so be patient! It could take weeks or months to see more increased flexibility/range of motion. With time and consistency you will see great changes! I have personally seen great results from every client I have worked with. They foam roll anywhere from 2-7 times a week, and I personally foam roll daily!
*Hamstring Rolling with Vibrating Roller
Types of Foam Rollers
Now there are a few styles of foam rollers and you may be confused as to which ones to try. Each type of foam roller does have a purpose and typically a larger roller is good for large muscles like the quads, while a small roller is great for those smaller muscles. The 5 main styles include:
Smooth rollers: Great for those new to rolling and are less expensive. Typically in the $20 ballpark. You can find these on amazon, or at places like Target, Walmart, TJMaxx etc.
Textured rollers: These ones have ridges to dig deeper into muscles and can be great for those with deep and stubborn muscle tightness. They can be quite intense so they are not great for someone new or for someone with very sensitive muscular pain.
Vibrating rollers: These can be smooth or textured and can be used in the same way as standard rollers, but the vibrating contributes to more muscle relaxation. Be aware they are quite pricey and run about $100. They are not something I typically recommend as a standard roller can get the job done for a fraction of the cost.
Foam-covered massage sticks: Great for smaller areas like the legs, neck and back.
Foam massage balls: Use with caution as these can be sensitive to use as well. Perfect for small target pressure points. Especially the shoulders!
*Quad Rolling with Massage Stick
Overall the benefits of adding in foam rolling to your schedule speaks for itself. If you can make major changes to your flexibility and pain management in 5-10 minutes a day, it’s definitely worth a try. It’s truly been a game changer for me and quickly became one of my favorite parts of the day. In general, taking time for yourself and prioritizing recovery can make such a difference in your physical and mental well-being. Feel free to reach out via email at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions you may have or to tell me about your experiences!
Until next week… and remember that fitness is for all