Foam rollers – the evidence?
There is much excitement in the sports and fitness world around the use of foam rollers for self-myofascial release (SMR). Go to most gyms and you will find people rolling around on them. But is there any evidence that foam rollers are effective, and how should they be used, if at all?
As yet, there has been little research into the use of foam rollers for SMR. The studies that have been conducted are small in size, with varying measures and outcomes, which makes comparison difficult, although they do show that foam rollers can have a short-term benefit by increasing joint range of movement and decreasing perceived pain after sport.
However, these trials are not based on a proper myofascial use of foam rollers. Many people who use them are doing so without any therapeutic gain because they are almost certainly working too fast and too hard to do anything more than tenderise their muscles, in much the same way as a good steak hammer will do.
Choosing the right foam roller
It is certainly possible to use a foam roller for SMR, but only if you pay attention to what you use and how.
Not all foam rollers are equal and it is therefore important to choose a roller that is the right density for you. Foam rollers vary in hardness and this is usually indicated by their colour. Softer rollers, which are made of more porous foam, are usually green or blue, sometimes even pink or white. Harder rollers, made of denser foam, are usually black, and some even come with added knobbly bits.
If you are a fit 95 kilo man, a black foam roller will be strong enough to support your weight and give sufficient pressure. However, if you are a 55 kilo woman, or anyone with a lot of fascial restrictions, you will need a softer roller to give you support without causing you so much pain that you give up on the first attempt.
Working with your fascia
How you use your foam roller is also important. Working effectively with your fascia means abandoning the principle of ‘no pain, no gain’. And embracing the concept of the ‘slow fix’ instead. The slower and more gently you work with your fascia, the more it will respond by releasing the restrictions that cause pain and imbalance. Work too quickly or too hard, and it will just tighten in a reflex response.
Fascia takes 90-120 seconds before it starts to release, so you need to move your body over your roller very slowly. As you do, you will discover areas that feel tight and painful. These are where you should stop and wait. Adjust the roller so that you are on the right spot, then adjust your weight and the rest of your body so you can maintain a steady gentle pressure, and wait for the tissues to release.
With mindful practice you can use a foam roller to good effect for SMR. They are particularly good for larger body areas where you want to roll in one particular direction. However, for a more multi-purpose SMR tool, you might want to consider myofascial release balls which are specifically made for the purpose, such as our myofascial release kit.