Most of the people who come to see me in Highbury are fit – they run, cycle, swim, play sport, do yoga, hike, climb – you name it, they do it. Almost every day someone will ask me if I think foam rollers are a good idea. My answer is, Yes. And No. And I’m right both times. Foam rollers are great for stretching out contracted fascia and muscles – especially after exercise. Fascia – basically densely packed collagen fibres – is everywhere in the body and when fascia or muscle fibres become tight, they form adhesions, restricting blood supply and causing soreness, limiting range of movement and making you vulnerable to injury.
Using a foam roller on a regular basis helps stretch out the fascia but you can easily do yourself more harm than good. Going down with the full weight of your body isn’t a good idea; nor is going over an area at speed as if you were ironing a shirt (not that I can really remember how to do that…); nor is staying on one spot and trying to squash the muscle into submission.
Foam rolling is hard work and never comfortable but you can help by using a roller slowly, deepening the work gradually and avoiding areas that are painful or inflamed. Work on all the muscles of a particular area – say, the hamstrings and calves – not just one muscle (say, the biceps femoris). Take it easy, start light and build up as your body becomes accustomed to being stretched in this way.
Most important, never think that a foam roller is any substitute for a good deep tissue massage! A massage therapist can get into areas the foam roller can’t, can feel what is going on with the muscles and fascia and how different parts of the body relate, and can be much more versatile, much more powerful and altogether more effective than any foam roller you’ll ever use.
Oh, just one more thing: foam rollers are only effective when they're used. Keeping your foam roller under the bed or in a wardrobe won't stretch anything – except possibly your imagination.