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What Does a Foam Roller Do and How Can It Help?

A foam roller is a performance and recovery tool that offers an effective and affordable way to achieve a deep tissue massage. Foam rolling releases painful knots and stimulates blood flow to enhance performance and speed up the healing process.

In a nutshell, foam rolling can help with:

  • Chronic back pain
  • Stiffness from sitting for extended periods of time
  • Myofascial Release
  • Flexibility and Range of Motion
  • Posture
  • Injury-Prevention
  • Recovery from Workouts
  • Better Sleep

This article will take a deeper dive into the benefits of foam rolling and offer advice on choosing the best foam roller for you and your body. But first, we’ll briefly explain how foam rolling works.

How Foam Rollers Work

Foam rollers allow you to self-massage painful knots and tense muscles – also known as “trigger points” – by placing the foam roller underneath you and slowly rolling over the tender or stiff areas. This process of relieving painful trigger points is commonly referred to as “Myofascial Release.”

As explained in the Recovery Journey, “Myo” means muscle and “fascia” is the connective network of tissue surrounding and supporting your muscles and organs, holding them in a place like a web.

If one part of that web is damaged, a blockage is created – dehydrating the fascia and forming painful adhesions (or ‘knots’) – which restricts movement and presents itself as pain to the injured site while often radiating pain across other areas of the body as well.

Dehydrated fascia not only inhibits your ability to recover and heal properly but also makes you more prone to injury or chronic pain.

The best analogy to illustrate the importance of well-hydrated fascia comes from Breaking Muscle who compares fascia to a sponge:

“When a sponge dries out it becomes brittle and hard. It can easily be broken with only a little force because of how crispy it has become. However, when a sponge is wet and well-hydrated it gets springy and resilient. You can crush it into a little ball and it bounces back. You can wring it and twist it, but it is difficult to break.”

Using a foam roller for myofascial release smooths out the knots and re-introduces fluid to the tense muscles and fascia, like adding water to a sponge, allowing you to recover faster and move better.

Now that you understand myofascial release and how foam rolling works, let’s take a closer look at the benefits of using a foam roller:

Reduce Chronic Back Pain

Foam rolling most likely isn’t a permanent solution to chronic back pain, but it can certainly help release the painful knots, reduce inflammation, and relieve some of your discomfort and pain. Easing the pain may give you the energy and strength you need to become more active and target the real source of your pain. For chronic back pain sufferers, pairing foam rolling with daily inversion therapy will make a significant difference in your journey to recovery, and long-lasting relief.

Relieve Muscle Stiffness

If you spend extended periods of time sitting – whether it’s at a desk, in a car, or on an airplane – you’re probably no stranger to the stiffness and aches that accompany it. Sitting is an unnatural position that forces the muscles and joints to compress and tighten. The longer we hold that compressed position, the more tense and inflexible the myofascial tissue and muscles become. Foam rolling helps decompress and relax those stiff muscles back to their natural position and release the tense trigger points that built up in the fascia.

Pre-Workout Rolling for Injury-Prevention

Foam rolling increases circulation and helps prepare the body for movement by stretching and loosening the muscles prior to working out. This warm-up increases range of motion and reduces the risk of tears and strains so you can move and perform better. It also activates more muscles that otherwise wouldn’t have been ready to optimally function, resulting in a more effective workout.

Post-Workout Rolling for Recovery

Exercise puts a lot of stress on various muscles, tissue, and joints that were most likely inactive for the majority of the day. Foam rolling targets the over-worked muscle areas and prevents knots from building up afterward – which studies show reduces soreness and allows your muscles to recover quicker and more effectively. The quicker that your muscles are able to recover from the stress of working out, the more your body can focus its energy on burning excess fat.

Improve Posture

Bad posture not only affects your physical appearance, but it’s the cause of a lot of pain and suffering. The negative effects of poor posture can stem from a variety of possible causes. For some, it’s a more complex issue stemming from spinal disease, but for others, it’s simply from a bad habit of slouching and lack of core strength to hold the body upright – which can be addressed with regular foam rolling. Rolling can help flatten out rounded shoulders, realign your spine, even out muscle imbalances, and strengthen your core muscles which will help you stand taller and prevent unnecessary pressure on your spine.

Improve Flexibility and Range of Motion

Myofascial release restores your muscles to their optimal length and improves the elasticity of the surrounding tissue by removing any “knots” preventing fluid from getting in. Think back to the sponge example above, when the fascia is well-hydrated it can bend, twist, and move easily and freely without breaking. Muscles become trained to behave in a certain way through repetitive action; the more those muscles get stretched and moved, the more flexible they will become. If the muscles aren’t regularly stretched and moved, then they are essentially being trained to be tense and brittle by default.

Better Sleep

When you experience mental stress, your body reacts. It’s not uncommon for people who are stressed about work, finances, relationships, or other personal matters, to carry that stress in their neck and shoulders and feel the physical pain that accompanies it. Foam rolling before bed releases and relaxes the muscles where you’re carrying that extra tension, allowing for a more comfortable and restful night of sleep.

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