Foam rolling is a self-myofascial release technique that helps ease muscle soreness, tightness, or trigger points. This activity is used as an intervention in various sport settings to increase training efficiency and hasten recovery after exercise. Because a foam roller may not always be accessible, there are multiple alternatives that may be used instead.
There are several alternatives to the foam roller which may be used for myofascial release. This includes the use of everyday objects such as hard water bottles and massage sticks, as well as more advanced equipment like the Theragun. No matter the alternative object used, the goal of the activity is to address muscle soreness and tightness, and aid in recovery.
Understanding the mechanism behind foam rolling and its benefits allows for better and more mindful use of this intervention. The available foam roller alternatives address equipment inaccessibility and allow individuals to target smaller muscle areas that large rollers may not be able to reach.
How Do Foam Rollers Work?
Foam rollers address tight muscles or painful knots known as trigger points by placing the target areas under the foam roller and slowly rolling over the tight areas. The sustained pressure on targeted fascia (the connective tissue that surrounds muscles, nerves, and blood vessels) releases the restriction, and allows for reduction of pain and greater range of motion. This process of relieving trigger points by sustained pressure is called myofascial release.
Myofascial Release and the Fascia
Myofascial release is an alternative medicine therapy used to address skeletal muscle problems such as pain and limitation in motion. The fascia, in a healthy condition, is relaxed and wavy in nature. It provides cushion and reduces friction between muscles upon contraction. The fascia becomes tight due to a multitude of reasons such as trauma, chronic strain, and immobility.
When a muscle and its surrounding fascia is injured, the body responds by making it tougher. The body reinforces the fascia by laying down collagen fibers in different directions to make the structure stronger, but this stiffens the unit, thus causing limitation of motion in the surrounding areas.
Chronic strain results from overuse, improper body mechanics, and faulty posture. This causes the fascia to adapt by having the body produce more collagen, which accumulates in the overloaded fascia. The structure then becomes tighter and develops trigger points within the fascia and through the muscle tissue.
The fascia, during rest, is regularly developing in the body. Because muscles are designed to move, so is the fascia. It can break down upon movement, but with loss of movement, it gradually becomes thicker as more layers of collagen are laid down. The flexibility of the fascia is then compromised as collagen fibers are closer to each other.
Foam rolling addresses these issues by targeting the area and facilitating the release of these structures. Performed in a slow, precise pattern across the skin, it stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, thus producing a calming effect. It also causes physiological changes to the body such as increased soft tissue elasticity and increased temperature.
An increase in fascia temperature occurs upon foam rolling, and the pressure of the roller on the structures changes fiber length. Increased tissue elasticity allows for greater range of motion and prevention of adhesion formation. The increase in temperature also induces an increase in blood flow through vasodilation. This allows for more nutrients to get to the tissue and for faster elimination of waste products.
Benefits of Foam Rolling
According to a meta-analysis by Wiewelhove et al., there is a reduction in muscle fatigue and soreness brought about by foam rolling. Other studies also mention improvements in joint range of motion and blood circulation.
Exercise places a huge amount of stress on the muscles, joints, and connective tissues. A study has shown a decrease in delayed onset muscle soreness after foam rolling post-workout. The same participants have noted better exercise performance than those who did not foam roll. Foam rolling targets the overworked muscles and aids in a quicker and more effective recovery by preventing tightness and knots from occurring.
Increase Range of Motion
Doing self-myofascial release techniques restores muscles to their optimal length and improves elasticity by breaking down knots which prevent fluid from getting to the fascia. This allows for smoother muscle contractions and more flexibility. A combination of foam rolling and static stretching still gives better results in terms of increasing range of motion as compared to foam rolling or static stretching alone.
Foam rolling can reduce muscle stiffness, but it may be beneficial to cardiovascular health as well. A study has shown a decrease in arterial stiffness after self-myofascial release. Arterial stiffness is usually caused by aging, but its development may be prevented, slowed, or even reversed. A number of approaches appear to help with the reduction of arterial stiffening, including performing flexibility exercises, and self-myofascial release techniques.
Foam Roller Alternatives
Foam rollers assist in recovery and they are largely portable, but it may not be accessible at all times. Alternatives may range from a tennis ball to more advanced machines like a Theragun, which provide similar benefits to a foam roller.
Tennis Ball/Lacrosse Ball/Baseball
Although foam rollers target larger muscle groups, self-myofascial release may also be done using any smaller-sized athletic ball. It is beneficial to use a tennis ball to target smaller muscle areas which foam rollers cannot reach.
It is used in the same way as a foam roller where the pressure is controlled by the individual by putting more or less weight on the ball. Since a tennis ball is not as hard as a lacrosse ball or baseball, it might be too soft for some people. Switching to a lacrosse ball or baseball is helpful in this case.
A massage stick is a great alternative to a foam roller especially when trying to target the quadriceps femoris muscle. Trying to target all angles of the quadriceps muscle on the foam roller takes more effort. Using a massage stick would allow for better mechanics while trying to roll on the muscle. It can be used while sitting down and pressure can be controlled as the individual goes up and down on the muscle.
Aside from massage sticks, thicker and shorter household items may be used in place of a foam roller. Water tumblers vary in size, shape and hardness. A more intense pressure is felt with a harder water tumbler. It is used in the same way as a foam roller or even an athletic ball. It helps loosen tight muscles and helps with lymphatic drainage.
The Theragun is an advanced self-myofascial release device that uses percussion massage therapy to ease muscle soreness and pain through vibration. It aids in the relaxation of thickened connective tissue and fascia.
Performing self-myofascial release with a foam roller or any of its alternatives should be done with care and attention to mistakes that need to be avoided. There are several foam rolling mistakes that individuals often commit which may lead to inflammation and trauma.
Rolling Over Bony Prominences and Joints
Bony prominences and joints should be avoided when doing self-myofascial release as this may lead to inflammation. Bones may be confused as adhesions, hence repeated rolling over these areas may cause an inflammation of the periosteum. Rolling on joints, on the other hand, may cause an inflammation of the surrounding tendons and ligaments.
Rolling the Lower Back and Neck
The lower back or the lumbar spine should not be involved in foam rolling. While rolling the thoracic spine may provide upper back pain relief, rolling the lumbar spine may lead to an injury due to hyperextension. The same thing is true for the neck or the cervical spine, hence this area should be avoided when foam rolling. Using a smaller object such as a tennis or a lacrosse ball may prove more beneficial to target areas surrounding the lumbar and cervical spine, but not directly over the spine itself.
Sudden Increase in Self-Myofascial Release Duration and Intensity
There should be a gradual increase in both duration and intensity of self-myofascial release just like in exercise or workout routines. This is because a sudden increase in both factors may result in post-treatment soreness. Although a slight discomfort is often experienced during foam rolling or performing any self-myofascial release technique, excessive pain should not be present and is often a sign of incorrect technique.
Overworking an Area
Some individuals may opt to focus on a single area due to stubborn adhesions. Overworking an area is not recommended as this may lead to muscle soreness, microtrauma, and bruising. Mild soreness is common after a session of self-myofascial release; however, areas that are still sore from a previous session should be avoided.
Foam rollers are useful tools for self-myofascial release which aids in reducing muscle soreness, improving range of motion, and improving circulation. The available alternatives include everyday household items and more advanced equipment, both of which provide the same and additional benefits as a traditional foam roller. Whether a foam roller or its alternative is used, it is important to avoid committing common mistakes as to prevent injury.
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- Scott, et al. 2015. The effects of self-myofascial release using a foam roll or roller massager on joint range of motion, muscle recovery, and performance: A systematic review. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy Nov; 10(6): 827–838.
- Shrier, et al, 2004. Does stretching improve performance: A systematic and critical review of the literature. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine 14 (5), 267–73.