On a Roll: Foam Rollers Ease Pain and Workout RecoveryFeb 26, 2021 ● By Marlaina Donato
Foam rolling—rolling parts of the body on top of a lightweight foam cylinder—targets trigger points or painful knots in muscles and is a valuable tool for reducing chronic pain and enhancing workout recovery. From sciatica to pelvic floor dysfunction, there is a foam roller for almost every condition, including low- to high-density, heated and textured types for massage-like benefits.
Research during the past several years shows that using foam rollers before or after exercise quells fatigue, improves joint mobility, lowers risk of injury and eases muscle soreness. Its effectiveness is attributed to the activation of the central nervous system resulting in better circulation and reduced inflammation.
“Foam rollers are used to relieve tension in the fascia (connective tissue), ‘roll’ out sore muscles and provide a soothing, self-controlled, soft-tissue massage,” says Amber Kivett, owner of Kivett Kinetic Solutions, in Monrovia, Indiana. “They can also be used for proprioception, balance, flexibility, core stability training and most importantly, natural pain relief.”
Freeing the Body
Fascia, the body’s all-pervasive connective tissue, tightens like an invisible net from injury and other stresses and can adhere to the underlying muscles, creating pain and restriction. “Foam rolling has the power to change and realign the 12 fascial lines responsible for human movement and support,” says Kivett. “Those same fascial lines also sense and transmit pain and emotion far greater than any nerve or muscle and respond well to foam rolling. There’s an emotional and spiritual release in the body when fascia is compressed and released. That response facilitates a structural change to human alignment and an immediate change in pain levels for all types and causes of pain.”
Foam rollers offer an opportunity for self-care, according to Los Angeles fitness trainer Ashley Borden. “Foam rolling is one of the best ways to troubleshoot your own body, keep it healthy and mobile. Using an inexpensive tool like a foam roller not only feels good, but it also connects you to your body. Foam rolling the entire body encourages circulation and an immediate feeling of relief afterwards. My clients who don’t like to work out are usually surprised how good they feel post-rollout and feel encouraged to do more.” She cites research that shows that a dynamic warm-up, paired with the use of foam rollers before and after workouts, amplifies recovery and aids in the repair of muscular micro-tears.
For Rafal Augustynowicz, founder of TeamRAF Fitness, in Kent, England, it’s about counteracting lifestyle stresses. “The foam roller is a beautiful and great tool, especially in the 21st century, when we sit too many hours. It is a great tool to get our mobility and our posture back to normal.”
Recovery, Joint Pain and Sciatica
Gently rolling targeted muscles below and above specific joints can help to resolve certain types of pain, including in the knee. “Many times, when a person has pain in the knee, it’s more than likely they have tight muscles elsewhere—calves, inner thighs, hip flexors or glutes—and the pain shows up in the knee,” says Augustynowicz. “Foam rolling and using a massage ball have saved me many times when I had a lot of problems with my back, neck, hip and a dislocated shoulder.”
The practice can help ease sciatica, a sometimes-excruciating condition. “Most cases of sciatic pain are caused by tight muscles deep in the buttocks, including the piriformis muscle,” says Kivett. “The sciatic nerve travels through the piriformis, so if it’s tight, it will cause a sensation similar to that of sciatica nerve pain. A foam roller can be used along the back, throughout the buttocks and the legs to relieve tension, soften tissues and calm the nervous system for instant pain relief.”
Kivett, who was introduced to foam rollers during intensive physical therapy after a life-altering accident, found them to be a way to recover from severe fibromyalgia pain. “My nerves were hypersensitive from the injuries, and I used foam rolling to reboot the ‘software’ in my brain, which allowed me to engage in recovering.”
Foam rolling is an all-around boon, Borden highlights. “The immediate relief, the muscle definition, the decrease in cellulite, all of these are added benefits.”
Marlaina Donato is an author and composer.
More Advice from the Experts
What to Know Before a Roll
Amber Kivett: Ideally, it’s best to perform foam rolling right after a light warm-up for five to 10 minutes to increase circulation to the muscles and decrease tension and stiffness. If there is extra time, do a quick three to five minutes of foam rolling after a workout, but preferably after you’ve done your cool-down or some walking. You don’t have to foam-roll the entire body post-workout; just do a quick “scan” of areas that are more sensitive or painful.
For those with high levels of pain, fibromyalgia, MS, autoimmune conditions or an acute injury, I would recommend buying a low-density, soft, foam roller or [one] that vibrates, because soft and/or vibrating foam rollers are gentle to fragile areas.
Ashley Borden: Foam rolling is a valuable tool for the senior population to improve overall body tightness and circulation. Assistance is needed if you have a hard time getting up and down. I would also suggest a non-slip yoga mat and using the softest foam roller first to gauge the pressure. If you feel like you have to hold your breath when you are foam rolling, the surface is too hard.
Rafal Augustynowicz: Never use foam rollers on bones, joints, the spine or armpits; only on the muscle/flesh. Be informed to avoid arteries, etc. If it hurts too much, it’s probably not right. Watch tutorials or go to a professional.