Why Foam Rolling Should Be a Weekly Habit
Health Mastery | Edition Nº6
My time at University was where I fell in love with the science behind recovery. Life gets so busy these days that once uncommon recovery methods you may have seen from top athletes are often adopted more commonly by the everyday individual.
One recovery tool, in particular, is foam rolling—but not just that, myofascial release as a whole. Look in any gym you want, and you’ll always find a foam roller in a corner somewhere. A masseuse or masseur is easier to find than ever, and the average person could explain why getting your muscles rubbed more often is a good thing.
But of all the unconventional recovery methods there are (meaning aside from straight rest), I found foam rolling and massages to be surprisingly capable of improving my posture and reducing muscle pain. I became so interested in foam rolling that I chose to write about it for my University dissertation.
Dedicating time and money to either of them can make a positive difference to your physical well-being. A foam roller (or tennis ball) is a very inexpensive way to give yourself free sports massages every few days, while a monthly massage is a worthwhile investment with mental benefits on anxiety, depression and pain.
What Is Myofascial Release?
Myofascial Release (MFR) is a Latin term comprising ‘myo’ (muscle) and ‘fascia’ (connective tissue), which forms the continuous three-dimensional matrix structure that flows throughout the human body. Fascia is a strong but flexible biological fabric that resides in and around your bones, muscles, organs, nerve fibres and other structures around your body to allow your body systems to function.
Myofascial release, then, consists of manual therapy that directly reduces tightness and “knots” or trigger points, which are rugged areas of a muscle that have tightened, are painful to touch, and cause pain even when you’re at rest. According to Healthline, these tense fibres are often a result of overuse, poor posture, or living a sedentary lifestyle. And according to the Sports Injury Clinic, trauma and lousy posture cause fascia to harden and decrease flexibility. This is why therapists and practitioners will implement this as part of standard recovery programmes.
Manual therapy includes:
Trigger Point Therapy
Active Release Techniques
Assisted Active Range of Motion (AAROM)
Science for Sport says localised tightness from these habits restricts our range of motion (ROM) and local blood flow. And MFR is suitable for enabling the tissue of a tight muscle to soften and ease.
The main benefits of this practice include:
Correcting Back pain
Improving Chronic fatigue
Improving Temporomandibular Joint Disorder (Jaw Pain)
Reducing Training stress
Overall, it’s a pretty specialised therapy technique intended to rehabilitate soft tissue and reduce fascial aches, pain, tension and restrictions to movement. Most of these problems come from our daily habits—so MFR can work well for anyone.
How does that sound?
How Foam Rolling Works
To use a foam roller, you lay it underneath a muscle and glide up and down the length of that muscle slowly. This movement can last from 30 seconds up to 5 minutes—whatever feels comfortable for you. If you find a tight spot where your muscle feels stiff or sore, compress the foam roller on top of that spot or around it, and keep still or do tiny movements for a few seconds. You could also use a tennis ball, roller stick or a firm set of hands.
It’s traditionally believed that our muscles respond well to firm, deep pressures applied to our target muscles, as this allows the adhesions to break up and significantly improve function.
Aside from adhesions, you also have:
knots: tiny bumps of tension around the muscle. They’re not always painful but can be if left unresolved.
Trigger points: tender areas which emerge in one part of the body and radiate to another (e.g. pain in the side of the neck causing pain in your shoulder blade).
Massage and myofascial release are not typically interchangeable. Increased popularity and greater ambiguity have caused a rupture in the meaning of what MFR is compared to massage. Here’s why:
MFR does not use or require oils and lotions. It’s often performed dry to allow the practitioner or user to feel deeper into the tissue and apply greater pressure.
Massage can have a lighter feeling than MFR; it only needs slight pressure to increase blood flow to the heart. MFR focuses more on trigger-point therapy, knots and adhesions.
Massages require a great skill known as “listening hands”, where a practitioner can feel local tightness in your muscles and adjust their strength accordingly.
Massage therapy is something we should all do more often. How often you should go depends on your activity levels. But here are some recommendations:
Desk-based for 40+ hours a week: every two weeks or once per month
Working with an injury: weekly or every two weeks
If suffering from chronic pain: weekly or every two weeks
If pregnant: biweekly
A person with Insomnia: weekly
Dealing with a lot of stress: weekly
Training high volume: weekly
Remember, this can be done at home by yourself, with a foam roller or massage gun, or by a professional.
But aside from what research says, if it works for you, then it works.
The Science Behind It All
A 2016 study found that Swedish Massage Therapy (SMT) improves what the authors call “Generalised Anxiety Disorder” (GAD). GAD can be associated with depression, and massage therapy provides positive signs in improving this and anger, hostility and fatigue.
A meta-analysis of 21 studies found that foam rolling can help reduce muscle pain and improve flexibility but stated it might work best for warm-ups than recovery. And a systematic review of 14 articles found that foam rolling may improve joint ROM and muscle performance—though a consensus is still up for discussion.
Some studies suggest that foam rolling shows no benefit to performance and recovery (see here and here), while other studies explain it can improve flexibility and reduce injury over time.
In my University study, I tested “foam rolling techniques” to understand the best practice of foam rolling. I had healthy adults perform either short FR bouts (30 seconds) or long FR bouts (~1 minute) over three weeks, and I measured their flexibility (joint ROM) before, halfway through and at the end of the study. My results found that people who completed longer FR bouts saw significant improvements in flexibility than those who did the control group and those who did shorter bouts.
Using a foam roller can be painful, but it’s a practice that I believe helps to improve flexibility, reduce pain and increase our healthspan.
Why do I believe this? Because during 2017-18, I got into a habit of foam rolling every evening for 30 minutes, followed by 30 minutes of yoga. This wasn’t for any particular reason; I just enjoyed doing it. However, a 2015 study did say incorporating both together is superior to stretching or foam rolling alone. And it made an incredible difference. From regular MFR and stretching, my flexibility was (and is) ridiculous, and I find myself less susceptible to chronic pain as my recovery time improved.
Careful consideration must be taken with foam rolling as excessive or aggressive work done by yourself, or an unskilled therapist can permeate scarring, inflammation and pain to your muscle. Good myofascial release techniques depend on skill and using the right tools correctly.
It would be best if you aimed for a short 30-minute MFR session daily, whether that’s massage or foam rolling. Daily use shouldn’t induce pain to your muscles, and it’s good enough to make a positive difference to your mental health, flexibility and recovery.