Foam Rollers: Are They Really Worth It?

Content Producer

You’ve never seen an expression of such horror as that of one of my co-workers as she exclaimed, “What?! You don’t roll?”

Nope—up until a few months ago, I didn’t “roll,” as she called it. Despite the chatter I’d occasionally hear among friends, running buddies and health-conscious co-workers about the wonders of using a foam roller, I casually waved it aside as a trend in passing. My selective hearing subsided, however, and I was persuaded to purchase what looked like a pointless-looking blue foam log. Well, I now understand why my co-worker was so horrified at my roller-less lifestyle back in the day. So here’s a warning to the plenty of foam roller skeptics and naysayers that still exist: If you don’t want to be convinced that your life is not complete until you have a foam roller in your hands, do not continue reading past this point.

What exactly is a foam roller?

You’ve probably seen them—those cylindrical “logs” made out of foam. There are different types of foam rollers—some are denser than others, some are smooth, and some have ridges of varying depths, which affect the intensity of foam rolling exercises.

Why should someone get a foam roller?

If you’ve ever gotten a massage, you’ve probably heard of having “knots” in certain places. Other than spots that make you cringe when pressure is applied, what exactly are knots?

Get ready for the quickest anatomy lesson of your life. Essentially, your muscles are wrapped in something called fascia—a structure of connective tissue that runs throughout the body and protects muscles, bones, nerves and blood vessels. Protecting both muscles and fascia is the skin. Ideally, the skin, muscle and fascia are working together without resistance—like two pieces of paper sliding seamlessly against each other. But the ideal is not always a reality.

Sometimes, the skin, muscle and fascia get stuck together—this is called myofascial adhesion (“myo” referring to muscle and “fascial” referring to fascia). The points at which they’re stuck together are called trigger points, or more commonly, knots. Adhesions can be caused by disuse, overuse, not enough stretching and various injuries.

The obvious result of adhesions is the pain and discomfort that they cause. The not-so-obvious result of adhesions is that such pain and discomfort often leads to more adhesions, which leads to more pain, and so on and so forth.

So what do foam rollers do?

Adhesions can be broken up through a type of therapy called myofascial release, often provided by physical therapists, sports medicine specialists and chiropractors. Often times, however, people perform self-myofascial release therapy with—you guessed it—a foam roller.

By placing your body  weight on the foam roller and applying sustained pressure, fascia softens and lengthens (releases), and adhesions can be broken up. Foam rollers can be used to break up trigger points on various parts of the body, including the glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, IT band, calves, upper and lower back and arms.

And there are many other benefits to using a foam roller:

  • Improves blood circulation throughout skin, fascia, muscles, tendons and ligaments. This allows nutrients and wastes to move throughout the body more efficiently and leads to better overall cellular function.
  • When muscles feel “tight,” the muscles have become shortened more than what is normal. Some muscles, such as hip flexors and ilotibial (IT) band, are more prone than others to become shortened, or tight. Foam rollers help provide deep pressure to such areas and lengthen the shortened muscles.
  • When trigger points are released, it helps reestablish proper movement patterns and enhance performance. Stretching alone is often not enough to release trigger points.
  • Besides causing pain and discomfort, myofascial adhesions can also lead to restricted muscle movement and reduced flexibility or range of motion. Foam rollers help alleviate these symptoms.
  • Prolonged and/or strenuous exercise may lead to buildup of lactic acid in the muscles. While the body naturally removes lactic acid from its muscles by using it as fuel and through regular blood flow, using a foam roller after a run may help blood acidity more quickly return to normal and help muscle cells resume using carbohydrates as their primary source of fuel.

Who should use a foam roller?

Foam rolling is especially helpful for runners, as they commonly have tight and fatigued muscles. If a runner has recently had an injury, he or she may recover more quickly through the use of a foam roller. Foam rollers can also help runners prevent injuries. When used on a regular basis, foam rollers not only break up current trigger points but also help protect muscles from forming new injury trigger points.

How do you use a foam roller?

If you do decide to invest in a foam roller, here are some of the best foam rolling exercises runners can perform:

  • Calves: Sit with legs stretched out, left on top of right. Place roller underneath right calf, and prop body up putting hands on floor behind you. Roll from below knee to back of ankle. Switch legs. (Same move can also be performed on hamstrings)
  • IT Band: Lie on left side, right foot on floor in front of left. Place roller under left thigh a couple of inches below the hip. Prop yourself up on left forearm, and roll from top of thigh to just above the knee. Repeat on opposite side. Helps prevent pain and inflammation in the knees.
  • Quadriceps: Rest on stomach and prop yourself up on forearms (in a basic plank position). Place foam roller under the front of thighs, and roll from the top of your quads to just above the knee.
  • Shins: Get on all fours and place roller under shins. Keeping hands on floor in front of you, roll knees towards hands. Roll from just under the knee to just above the ankles. Helps prevent shin splints.
  • Glutes: Lie on back, and place roller underneath pelvis, and hold each end of roller for support. Slowly twist lower body to left and then slowly to the right. Continue for 30 to 60 seconds. Helps keep hips and knees aligned.

Additional foam rolling tips

  • If you feel a particularly deep pain in a certain area, stay in that position for about 20 seconds before continuing
  • Exercises are best performed following a workout, prior to stretching
  • Foam rolling will hurt. With regular practice, the exercises will become easier
  • Avoid rolling over bones or joints
  • Consult your physician if you suffer from heart problems, chronic pain or a vascular illness