You’ve probably seen long, firm tubes called foam rollers and may have used one after a workout. Foam rolling is popular as a way to increase flexibility, although the way foam rolling works is probably different than what you’ve heard. You often hear that foam rolling improves flexibility by self-myofascial release, the breaking up adhesions or “knots” in the fascia, the tissue that covers the muscle. When these adhesions are present they restrict movement of the muscle. By releasing these tight areas, according to the theory, the muscle can move with less restriction.
In reality, foam rolling doesn’t apply enough force to break up adhesions. True myofascial release happens when a physical therapist applies greater degrees of force to adhesions. It is beneficial, but you can’t easily do it at home with a foam roller. More than likely the way foam rollers improve flexibility is by retraining the nervous system to tolerate greater degrees of muscle lengthening or stretch. Suffice it to say, some people get benefits from foam rolling and feel it improves muscle function. But, some small studies suggest that foam rolling may positively impact the health of another system in your body – your heart and blood vessels.
Does Foam Rolling Improve Heart Health?
At first glance, it might seem that the heart wouldn’t be impacted by foam rolling at all. After all, you’re rolling a roller over muscles and the fascia that covers it. But, when you use a foam roller, you also compress and “massage” blood vessels, and recent research suggests that this may be beneficial for heart and blood vessel health. Here’s why.
As we get older, the walls of arteries, blood vessels that carry blood away from the heart to other parts of the body to stiffen and harden. This stiffening is one reason blood pressure rises with age. The stiffening creates more resistance to blood flow through a blood vessel. Stiff, tight blood vessels are a liability.
Can foam rolling help? In one study, researchers asked healthy men and women to foam roll muscles in their upper back and lower extremities. The subjects completed 20 repetitions for each muscle group with 1-minute rest periods between sessions. Afterward, they measured heart rate, blood pressure, and stiffness in the arteries in the group that foam rolled as well as the control group that didn’t.
What they found was the foam rolling group experienced a significant decline in arterial stiffness as well as an increase in production of nitric oxide within the vessel wall. Nitric oxide helps blood vessels open up wider to allow more blood and oxygen to flow with less resistance. The control group didn’t enjoy these benefits. So, foam rolling was linked with improved blood vessel function that could, in turn, have a positive impact heart health.
Other Benefits of Foam Rolling
It’s intriguing that foam rolling has benefits not just for muscles but, potentially, for heart health as well. Yet, it has other muscle perks as well. Studies suggest that foam rolling may reduce muscle soreness. In one study, when subjects foam rolled only one leg, they reported reduced pain in both legs. The theory is that foam rolling stimulates pressure receptors on the surface of the muscle. When these receptors sense pressure, it feeds back to the brain and the nervous system “relaxes” in response. This relaxation may reduce the sensation of pain and soreness on both sides.
Foam Rolling Might Be a Good Addition to Your Fitness Routine
There really aren’t a lot of downsides to using a foam roller. It’s a safe technique and, potentially, offers benefits. To get the benefits, you only need around 3 sets of foam rolling per muscle. The duration of each roll should be between 30 and 45 seconds. Foam rollers come in varying degrees of firmness from low density to very dense and firm. The very firm rollers are likely to be uncomfortable when you start out. Yes, foam rolling can be a bit painful at first, if you’re too aggressive, but you don’t need to experience pain and discomfort to get benefits. So, opt for a softer, less dense foam roller when you first start. You can always progress to a firmer one as you build up tolerance.
Foam rollers come in varying degrees of firmness or density. Color gives an indication as to how firm a roller is. The densest, hardest foam rollers are black in color and the lowest density, softest ones are white. Between the two are green and blue foam rollers with intermediate degrees of firmness. They also come in varying lengths. You’ll probably do fine with a 12 or 18-inch foam roller unless you plan on rolling your back. In that case, opt for the 36-inch roller. The lighter, softer white foam rollers typically don’t last as long as denser ones, but they’re reasonable in price when it comes time to replace one.
You can also find textured foam rollers that have bumpy ridges attached to them. The idea is that the ridges apply more pressure to adhesions or trigger points, so you get more intense therapy. You really don’t need this, and It will likely be too uncomfortable when you’re starting out. Also, take it slow and avoid rolling over or around joints. Roll over the belly of the muscle group you’re working. When you find an area of pain or pressure, apply pressure to that point and hold it for up to 45 seconds. Repeat the process for other muscle groups.
The Bottom Line
Foam rolling is a good addition to your fitness routine – and it may have the additional perk of being beneficial for your heart and blood vessels. Shop around and choose a foam roller that meets your needs and put it to use. You might be pleasantly surprised by the results!
The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research: January 2014 – Volume 28 – Issue 1 – p 69–73. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31829480f5.
Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2015 Nov; 10(6): 827–838.
Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2014 Jan;46(1):131-42. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e3182a123db.
J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Mar;27(3):812-21. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31825c2bc1.