In an ideal world, an expert sports or deep tissue massage would always follow an intensive workout. However for the average amateur sportsman or woman, unfortunately a personal masseuse isn't a viable reality.
Previously the preserve of sports therapists, foam rollers have gained wide-spread popularity within the sports and fitness community, and are now broadly used by individuals of all fitness levels. A simple piece of kit which is portable, easily accessible and highly beneficial, a foam roller is an economical yet highly effective way to take control of your muscle recovery. Whilst the correct stretching, applied heat therapy and saunas all help to negate muscle aches and strains, utilising a foam roller can help optimise post-exercise recovery and therefore enhance your athletic performance.
What is a foam roller?
Foam rolling is a technique widely used by athletes and therapists to target the fascia. The fascia is the band of protective tissue fibres which serves to stabilise, enclose and separate the muscles and organs, and includes tendons and ligaments. When the fascia is functioning poorly athletic performance is effected - for instance tension and dehydration of the fascia causes a faster onset of fatigue during physical exertion, and movement control may be effected. In material terms, a foam roller is fairly self-explanatory - a cylindrical section of firm foam - however the specific material used will impact upon product density and firmness. How to choose between the different products available on the market is explained in greater detail below.
How does a foam roller work?
The foam roller uses resistance from bodyweight to effectively target overactive muscles and tendons in the body. The applied resistance effectively massages the body to release muscular tension and tightness. By using your own body weight to apply pressure where needed, a foam roller allows you to effectively and efficiently target muscle discomfort, adhesions and tension, aiding muscle recovery after exercise. Using sustained pressure to target tension in the muscles and soft tissue known as the fascia, is referred to as myofascial release. Myofascial release is a massage technique used widely by physiotherapists and massage therapists to release muscular tension, ease discomfort and improve general mobility and bodily alignment.
The action of using a foam roller is known as a self-myofascial release technique (SMR) - essentially a portable DIY massage which is highly effective. Using a foam roller can be a comprehensive SMR technique in effectively targeting many overactive muscles including thoracic spine (trapezius and rhomboids), adductors, gastrocnemius, latissimus dorsi, piriformis, TFL, quadriceps, hamstrings and hip flexors.
In general day to day use, it is also a simple yet highly effective way to stretch out muscular tension in the back caused by repetitive movement or stasis (e.g working at a computer.) Athletes who are prone to over-active muscle discomfort can particularly benefit from the use of a foam roller.
How do I choose the right foam roller for my needs?
As a commonly available product on the fitness marketplace, foam rollers are available for purchase in a variety of different materials, surface textures and sizes. Choosing between these options will allow optimum efficiency of the product to meet your needs. The various options available can be confusing for a first time user, so we explain the differences in more detail below.
What size do I need?
The standard foam roller tends to be 6 inches in diameter and 12 inches in length, however a longer length would be recommended if you intend to target the muscles in your back. Foam rollers up to a length of 36 inches are available, and best intended for use on the upper back and shoulders. The shorter length foam rollers are ideal for targeted use of the leg muscles and hip flexors. In essence, the larger the body surface you wish to target, the longer the foam roller required.
Foam roller materials
There are 7 different main foam roller materials currently widely offered by retailers, listed in order of density - from standard to extra firm - below:
- PE (polyethylene) - Standard density
- EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate)
- Duplex (high-density EVA)
- EPP (expanded polypropylene)
- FTR (EVA-PVC mix)
- TPT (EVA-PVC mix)
- Rumble Roller (EVA-polyolefin mix) - Extra-firm
Generally the requirement for foam roller firmness and density is higher in relation to the intensity of your sports, training or workout and the intended intensity of foam roller use. Furthermore, those prone to fascial discomfort will benefit more from a higher-density product. The higher-density materials also increase durability of the product, so if you are purchasing for a gym, sports team or intend the product to be shared, opting for a higher durability foam roller will add longevity to your investment.
Foam roller surface textures
Foam rollers are also available in different surface textures. Generally the surfaces available are:
Duplex and bumped surface designs have additional ridges to target areas of muscle that smooth surface rollers cannot access. This option is particularly effective at targeting trigger points, and for a more intense self-myofascial release technique. The 'finger-tip' surface aims to mimic the fingers of a massage therapist, in that trigger points are identified by the ridge, and the smooth surface allows the gentle stretching and release of soft tissue. For those without particularly strenuous work outs or muscular tension, a smooth surface will be effective.
Foam rollers are an excellent piece of affordable kit to assist muscle recovery and tension relief. The benefits of applying self-myofascial release massage include enhanced muscle recovery and a swifter recovery period, which in turn can enhance overall athletic performance.