Foam rollers are appearing in gyms all over the country. But experts say, think twice before replacing post-exercise stretching with a foam rolling session.
Foam rolling is a form of manual therapy that works by using one’s own body weight to roll out body parts on a cylindrical foam roller. It’s a form of self-massage that breaks up tight fascia while increasing blood flow and circulation.
“I do believe that people think they should do (foam rolling) in place of stretching. But it’s not going to adequately stretch the muscle,” said physiotherapist Kanwal Gill.
Foam rolling is a similar concept to massage, said registered massage therapist Adrian Strupp.
“(Foam rolling) is a manual muscle manipulation technique. You’re compressing or kneading the muscles while increasing circulation to the area to loosen them up,” said Strupp.
“The general idea is that if you increase the blood flow to an area, the blood carries the oxygen, oxygen is transported to the muscles and the muscles will both heal better and be healthier,” he said.
Strupp said people stretch for similar reasons, but the action works in a different way.
“What you’re doing when you’re stretching is taking the muscle to its absolute maximum tensile limit (length), releasing it and allowing it to reset on its own,” said Strupp. “So you’re not actually manipulating the muscle in any way and you’re not trying to increase circulation.”
Strupp said it’s best to stretch after a workout and foam roll on recovery days when the muscles are already sore.
“When they’re sore like that they’re storing lactic acid and you have delayed-onset muscle soreness,” said Strupp. “If you increase the circulation you can flush out the lactic acid and all the other stuff and you increase the blood flow and increase the oxygen which will help the muscle heal faster.”
Crystal Pole-Langdon, a graduate of Humber’s Fitness and Health Promotion program, agrees.
The theory behind massage therapy and foam rolling is that massaging the tissue helps to improve the blood flow to the area and release toxins to facilitate the recovery process, she said.
Gill said she tells her patients who need to foam roll to do it once a day but she rarely prescribes it to her patients as a post-exercise recovery.
“I would say stretching would be a better recovery after a workout,“ said Gill.
Academic studies are starting to look at the benefits of foam rolling for delayed-onset-muscle soreness, however.
A study published in the February 2015 issue of Journal of Athletic Training examined eight healthy and physically active men and found that foam rolling effectively reduced delayed-onset muscle soreness.
The study said a 20-minute foam rolling session immediately after exercising and every 24 hours after may enhance muscle recovery.
Students in the Fitness and Health Promotion program learn how to foam roll effectively, said Pole-Langdon, who is also a program support officer for the School of Hospitality, Recreation and Tourism.
“Anecdotally speaking, (foam rolling) seems to have gained a lot of popularity,” said Pole-Langdon.
Yet there are still misconceptions that surround foam rolling despite its rise in popularity. Strupp said clients often tell him they stretch when they really mean they foam roll.
“Don’t think that foam rolling is a substitute for stretching, and don’t think that stretching is the same thing as foam rolling,” he said. “You should do both, but they’re not the same thing.”