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The Benefits of Foam Rolling and Why it Hurts So Good

Foam rolling legs.

Foam rolling tight muscles may be somewhat uncomfortable, but it’s also one of those “hurts so good” kinds of discomforts, which is why many athletes have a love-hate relationship with their foam roller. That said, whether you fall more squarely into the “love” camp or “hate” camp, there are several important benefits that come from foam rolling muscles, tendons, fascia, and other soft tissues.

Understanding the benefits of foam rolling may be a deciding factor that encourages you to fully embrace your foam roller for the helpful mobility tool it is once and for all. It can also help inform how and when you use a foam roller and the best ways to improve the effectiveness of your foam rolling technique and routine. And, if you’ve never played around with a foam roller, learning the benefits of foam rolling will help you decide if it’s time to jump on board this growing trend. Keep reading for our guide to the benefits of foam rolling, information on types of foam rollers, and tips to get the most out of foam rolling.

What Is a Foam Roller?

three foam rollers stacked up against each other.

A foam roller is a self-myofascial release (SMR) tool used to release tension in and increase the mobility of your muscles, fascia, and other connective tissue surrounding a joint. Although there are various shapes and sizes available these days, most foam rollers are cylindrical in shape with a length of one to four feet and a diameter of 5 to 10 inches. A foam roller may be hollow or solid and is typically constructed from dense foam or some sort of foam- or rubber-covered rigid plastic. The foam roller may be smooth or textured with various ridges and bumps.

How Does Foam Rolling Work?

Contrary to popular belief, foam rolling doesn’t physically break up knots in muscles; rather, it stimulates the nervous system to relax tension in the surrounding tissues. Essentially, foam rolling works by sending input to your nervous system via receptors in your muscles, tendons, and fascia. As you roll over these soft tissues, the receptors send signals to the spinal cord, and the parasympathetic nervous system responds by sending signals back to the muscles or tissues to relax. In doing so, foam rolling increases the range of motion in muscles and tendons and around joints.

Foam rolling also increases blood flow, aiding the delivery of oxygen and other nutrients to muscles, which can improve the effectiveness of a warmup routine and enhance recovery and removal of metabolic waste products accumulated in muscles after exercise.

Benefits of Foam Rolling

Foam rolling can be an effective manual therapy tool for both warming up tissues and preparing the body for a workout as well as aiding recovery after exercise. As such, consider adding foam rolling into your warm-up and cool-down routines. Here are the primary benefits of foam rolling:

Increases Range of Motion

Foam rolling before a workout can reduce stiffness and help your body feel more limber. As mentioned, foam rolling signals the parasympathetic nervous system to relax the muscles and tendons you are rolling. As these tissues relax, the fibers move from a contracted state to an elongated state. This can increase the range of motion around the joint the muscles control, improving mobility and optimizing motion.

Increases Circulation

Foam rolling increases blood flow to the tissues you work with the foam roller. This can be especially beneficial for fascial, tendons, and ligaments, which have relatively little blood flow under normal circumstances. Because blood carries oxygen, glucose, and other nutrients muscles and connective tissues need to contract and repair, increasing blood flow enhances the delivery of vital nutrients and can maximize function and recovery.

If you have an injury or are sore after a workout, foam rolling can help encourage the removal of inflammatory waste products, flushing these tissues with fresh nutrients and circulating out toxins.

Warm Up Muscles

The friction generated by rolling over your tissues creates heat that warms up muscles, tendons, fascia, and other connective tissues. Warm tissues are more pliable and less likely to get injured, so adding foam rolling to your pre-workout routine can be an important step in mitigating the risk of injury, especially if you’ve been sedentary for a few hours prior to your workout.

Reduce Muscle Soreness

Research has found that foam rolling after a hard workout can decrease the intensity of delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS), the achy pain that can creep up 24-48 hours after intense exercise. Foam rolling helps prevent muscle adhesions and enhances the circulation of oxygenated blood to depleted muscles after exercise. In this way, foam rolling can reduce inflammation and soreness in and around muscles and joints.

Reduce Pain

If you have pain due to stiffness, foam rolling can provide the stimulus your muscles need to relax, effectively easing pain. Research has demonstrated an improvement in reported back pain severity as well as chronic widespread pain for fibromyalgia sufferers with regular foam rolling.

Help You Relax

Studies have found a psychological benefit of foam rolling as well, with reported feelings of relaxation, tension and stress relief, and an improvement in overall mood. Many athletes report that ending an exercise session with a gentle, full-body foam rolling routine simulates a massage and can increase feelings of overall well-being and workout satisfaction.

How to Choose a Foam Roller

There are different types of foam rollers with different benefits.

  • Smooth foam rollers: These foam rollers are basic cylinders, generally constructed from dense foam. They are less intense than textured foam rollers and provide even pressure.
OPTP PRO-Roller Soft Foam Roller.

  • Textured foam rollers: The bumps and ridges on textured foam rollers provide concentrated pressure to more precisely and aggressively work knots and tight spots in tissues. Textured foam rollers tend to be more expensive.
TriggerPoint GRID Foam Roller

  • Vibrating foam rollers: Newer to the market, vibrating foam rollers, such as the Theragun Wave Duo, combine the vibrating effects of a massage gun with a foam roller to enhance circulation, muscle relaxation, and therapeutic recovery.
Theragun Wave Duo Vibration Roller.

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