Many people have heard about the dreaded foam roller and how painful it can be, often being put off by the thought of it as soon it’s mentioned.
However, It’s fastly becoming one of the most used self-myofascial release techniques and becoming very popular amongst both elite and amateur athletes. But how painful and beneficial can it actually be? Over the past month I set out to find out the real benefits and just how much of an impact it can have on your performance.
Muscle tightness may not be the only cause for pain, but more often than not it’s a huge contributing factor. I regularly advise my clients to use the dreaded roll of foam to improve their mobility alongside their individualised stretching program. In reality it can be difficult to stick to a daily routine, with work commitments, family life and lifestyle demands. I’ll confess, I’ve been playing sport on and off all my life but have never properly abided by a set mobility regime; instead opting to stretch or foam roll as and when I felt tightness or pain. But just how beneficial could it be to my daily performance, I wasn’t sure. With the recent hype in foam rolling and improving physical fitness, I set myself a new challenge of rolling my muscles every day for a month and reviewing the hard evidence at the end of the 31, pain-staking days.
Before I threw myself into the challenge I began to do a little bit of research. With so many crazy colours, sizes and shapes I wanted to make sure I got the right type of roller and that I wasn’t going to over roll. Reading lots of online articles and foam roller descriptions, I found 2 common themes:
1. Don’t over do it! – “This is the most important one, I’ve seen a number of people get bruises from over rolling specific areas, causing further damage and soreness. As a rolling novice I’d advise completing no more than 60 seconds on each muscle group. It’s important to listen to your body and slowly increase your foam rolling sessions as your body gets used to it. If you have any particularly tight areas then spend a little longer on these but don’t over do it!”
2. Progress Slowly! – “In general, the harder the surface the better it is. But if you’re rolling novice then it’s probably best to start off with a softer foam roller and progress onto the harder textured ones as you get used to using them”.
So what are the benefits supposed to be?
According to the professionals, Foam Rolling is supposed to:
Increase blood flow throughout the body
Release and loosen tight muscles within the body
Improve Joint Range of Movement – leading to a reduced risk of injury
Improve recovery time – therefore leading to quicker turn around for training / gym sessions
Less soreness and better performance? I was game.
Pre-Week 1: The Testing!
To get the most out of the challenge and highlight the importance of rolling, I had to get cold hard facts as well as my own opinion, so got a colleague to test my muscle range of movement at both day 1 and day 31. I then recorded my own perceived pain levels post exercises as the month progressed. Tests included hamstring, quadriceps and hip adductor range of movement.
Week 1: No Pain, No Gain!
With the advice that I'd read ringing in my ears I decided to purchase a textured deep tissue myofascial foam roller (Call me sadistic but if I was going to do it, I wanted to do it properly), and set about rolling. The first day was agonisingly painful and didn’t go well. For what seemed to be the longest 60 seconds of my life I could feel what felt like the weight of a house (actually just my own bodyweight) squashing my muscles and rolling them out like a mangle. I’m man enough to say a little whimper may have been heard. But being cautious not to over do it, I stuck to 60s for each muscle group and quickly put the dreaded roller away before tentatively trying it 2 more times throughout day before calling it a day. This continued throughout the week, with the words “it’s a marathon not a sprint” circling my head with every roll.
Week 2: Tides are turning
After 7 days of torture (decreasingly so as the days passed), I slowly started to find myself sadistically liking those 15 minutes that I spent foam rolling each day. However this was probably influenced by the fact I no longer winced when rolling on day 8. By day 11 I found myself in a structured routine of rolling my hamstrings, groins, glutes, calves and ITB (iliotibial Band – The MOST Painful of all!) for about 60s on each area, getting more and more comfortable by the day. I also found that my muscles weren’t aching as much as they usually did post gym workouts and that my legs didn’t feel as heavy when I went out for a run. Could this be working? Could the pain be worth it?
Week 3: On a Roll
By day 16 I was flying. I no longer felt pain (well almost) when I rolled and I was actually starting to quite enjoy it. Now I’m not going to lie, foam rolling the ITB was still a little sore, but I found that by using my top leg and hand I could push on the floor and ease just a little pressure from my ITB. Making it much more tolerable.
Come Day 18 I seemed to have a new lease of life, feeling more energised and much more flexible I found my running to be much more easier and I was able to cope with harder training in the gym without the high levels of soreness that I was previously used to. Now I’m not saying that the foam rolling was the only factor for my improvements (diet and sleep also feature), but I’m 100% sure it had a very good part in it.
Week 4: It's a Miracle
It’s day 24 and I can proudly say that for the first time in years (many, many years) I can reach for my toes and comfortable touch the floor with the palms of my hands, something I never thought I’d be able to do. I’m also managing long family walks with ease and hitting personal bests with a number of my favourite runs. I can safely say that although the thought of foam rolling filled me with dread at the start of the challenge, I now can’t deal with the thought of not including it as part of my daily fitness routine. For all levels of athletes, this low-fuss, cheap, easy and self-managing technique is a must!
The Results: Post Challenge Testing
Wow! I knew I could feel the benefits but the stats don’t lie either. On average i’ve gained an incredible 15 degrees extra movement in my groins, 20 degrees on my hamstrings and 25 degrees on my quadriceps! Who’d have known that with a little pain (initially), perseverance and a cheap £15.00 foam roller I’d have gained such fantastic results. Consider this one more allegiance to the foam rolling following.
Fancy trying it yourself? Our video below shows you how to roll the
major muscle groups in the body.