Every gym has a corner for miscellaneous items: bands, mats, kettlebells, ab roller wheels, and belts for heavy lifting. Among these you will sometimes find a cylindrical tube, either smooth or with ridges on its surface. This is the foam roller, and out of all the things that go ignored in a gym, it is the most underrated.
It does, however, trigger curiosity. One can always see a couple of regulars use the foam-roller before or after a workout. It seems interesting, and it’s fair to say that most people don’t use it because they don’t know how to use it.
“It is something that should be introduced to the gym-goer by the fitness professional. A foam-roller helps in myofascial release. Knots form in soft tissue when you work out and become trigger points which the muscle keeps bombing. This leads to tightness and pain and can cause restriction in your range of motion or pain in different joints as well,” says 25-year-old Girish Venkatraman, a strength and conditioning coach based out of Pune, who has also played national-level basketball for Maharashtra.
So what is myofascial pain? The health and medicine portal WebMD.com defines myofascial pain syndrome (MPS) as “a fancy way to describe muscle pain. It refers to pain and inflammation in the body's soft tissues.” So how does the foam roller help? Foam rolling is a form of manual therapy in which you adjust your body over the roller to find the exact points of inflammation to release them. An example would be tightness in the upper back and shoulder blades. According to Venkatraman, for this you would lie down with the roller placed under and perpendicular to the upper back and use your feet to move your body over roller in horizontal or vertical motions to target the affected area. “Once I find the trigger point where I’m experiencing maximum tightness, I stay static on it for about a minute till the pain reduces, and then roll again in up-down or sideways motions,” he says.
According to a study published in the International Journal Of Sports Physical Therapy in 2014, called Specific and Cross Over Effects Of Massage For Muscle Soreness: Randomized Controlled Trial, using a foam roller before and after workouts helps in speeding the recovery process. It also helps to overcome the effects of delayed onset muscle soreness (i.e. the muscle pain experienced a day or two after you’ve worked out).
“My glutes tend to get very tight so I roll them before and after a workout. If I have gone hard on a specific muscle on a particular day, I will spend longer on a foam roller post-workout. For runners and those who play sport, I’d suggest a short duration foam-rolling warm-up for blood circulation, and a more rigorous session after,” says Venkatraman. He adds that foam-rolling would work differently for everybody, but one should do it “within the range of bearable pain.”
It is advisable for people to look up a few videos and read some articles before using a foam roller. There are various ways to use one and a favoured foam rolling routine can only be developed after consistent and careful trial and error. A study published in 2014 in the US-journal National Library of Medicine concluded that “Roller massage was painful and induced muscle activity, but it increased knee-joint ROM (range of motion) and neuromuscular efficiency during a lunge.”
Foam rolling is by no means a replacement for traditional warm-up and cool-down sets. That said, a quick session on a foam roller will certainly aid one’s pre- and post-workout routines. “It doesn’t affect my lifting or range of motion directly, but it supplements my performance,” says Venkatraman.
He suggests one could get a feel of the foam roller by taking a tennis ball and placing it under the hamstring—that most wretched and tight muscle for most people—and rolling over it until a trigger spot is found. The hamstring, which tends to compensate for weaker muscles, will surely appreciate this.
But don’t be disappointed or overuse a foam roller if it doesn’t seem to be of help. “For some people it’s like magic. It has even helped people with tendonitis. But for others, it is ineffective. There are some basic beliefs though, like how tight iliotibial bands (IT bands) never respond to foam-rolling. They get more irritated if rolled on,” Venkatraman says.
Having experienced iliotibial band syndrome (a painful condition in which the connective tissue rubs against the thigh bone) myself, foam rolling the IT band only made it more painful. But the plus point of rolling was that releasing the hip-flexor with a tennis ball eventually reduced the tightness in the IT bands.
A detailed article on foam rolling in Science For Sport mentions an optimum number of sets and repetitions for your routine: three to five sets of 20-30 second repetitions done three to five times a week on a “consistent basis to achieve and retain the chronic effects on flexibility.”
The above video tutorial on foam rolling from the YouTube channel Trigger Point says that “foam-rolling keeps fascia healthy by circulating fresh oxygenated blood through it. The healthier your fascia, the better you move.” Another one by YouTube fitness trainer Shona Vertue will take you through a 15-minute routine, parts of which you can incorporate in your workouts depending on which muscles you’re hitting that day.
So the next time you see one of these foam-rollers lying around the gym, know that it could become the unsung hero of your workout performances if added cleverly to your routine.
Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writes on football and fitness.