In the last post we talked about a definition of foam rolling and discussed some of the potential mechanisms for how it works - if you missed it and want to catch up you can read it here. Today we will cover the proposed benefits of foam rolling and the practical applications of how and when you should roll.
So, what are the benefits of foam rolling?
In the literature, foam rolling has been shown to decrease pain, increase range of motion without loss of power, and improve blood flow to the treated area. Sounds wonderful, right? Less pain, better movement, and improved circulation? Well it is good, but it is not perfect. All of these effects were measured in the short term, typically within 30 minutes of rolling. It is possible that some of these effects last longer than 30 minutes but when you look around the gym and see the same people rolling everyday, but who are still unable to touch their toes, it is hard to imagine that the effects are permanent.
So, when should I use my foam roll?
With the temporary nature of the benefits, using a foam roller at home before you drive to the gym, or walk to the park to meet up with your training group is not likely to be beneficial. But using a foam roll directly before activity, especially before performing corrective exercise or difficult complex movements could have huge benefits. Using the foam roll can open up a window of opportunity to perform movements correctly and effectively. We know that pain affects movement (often negatively). If you reduce the pain you feel as you train you are likely to reduce inefficient compensatory movements stemming from that pain. If you increase your range of motion before you train, perhaps you can go deeper into your squat or bring your arms into a better receiving position for your clean. The more you train in those better, more efficient patterns, the more likely you are to avoid injury and be able to maintain the benefits of the rolling (i.e. increased range of motion).
What about using the foam roller for recovery?
Using a foam roller after a strenuous workout may also be beneficial, especially when it comes to post-workout soreness and recovery. The benefits may be temporary, but I welcome any decrease in discomfort when it comes to driving home in my stick shift after a hard workout. And when it comes to repairing tissue damage after a workout, even a temporary improvement of blood flow and tissue function, would seem to be beneficial. So by all means if you like using the foam roller as part of your cool down process please continue to do so, just don't forget about the window of opportunity you may be missing out on if you don't roll before your workout as well.
Finally, how should you use your foam roller?
Most of the articles referenced above used a technique that involved using a significant amount of body weight on the roller and then slowly working back and forth over the entire muscle or a sore spot in the muscle. This is consistent with how many people are currently using foam rollers, and is an easy technique to apply to a majority of the muscles in your body. But, what a lot of people want to know is does it have to hurt? My typical answer to this question is 'probably'. In order to maximize the benefit we get from DNIC there should be some discomfort. It should "hurt good." This does not mean that you should be grimacing with tears rolling down your face, and if you are getting an electric jolt down your arm or leg, then you should probably change your position a little. But if one of the benefits is reducing pain by modulating your bodies interpretation of the pain response, then there has to be at least some pain to change it.
In conclusion, foam rolling may reduce pain, increase range of motion and improve blood flow. It is certainly a tool that can be used as part of a warm up or recovery process. Due to the temporary nature of the benefits from foam rolling, to get the maximum effect try to incorporate rolling directly before activity and use the "window of opportunity" that is provided to intentionally practice proper, safe, and efficient movement patterns. This should lead to maximizing the potential benefits of foam rolling and, hopefully, improve your performance.
Here are links to some of the articles referenced above:
Foam rolling as a recovery tool
Effects of a foam roller on arterial function
Foam rolling and range of motion