Over the years, foam rolling has become a hot topic among professionals — from doctors to coaches — in the fitness world. For those who believe in its powers, foam rolling is often a daily part of a post-workout routine that has been carefully cultivated to prevent injury and maximize recovery.
“Foam rolling is so important in maintaining soft tissue mobility and preventing injury,” says physical therapist Amanda Brick, DPT, the clinical director at Professional Physical Therapy. “Athletes should work it into their daily routine. Some use it for a warmup and some use it for a cooldown, but as long as it’s being used consistently on a daily basis, it will help keep their muscles healthy.”
When it comes to discussions about foam rollers, you may hear the Feldenkrais Method mentioned by therapists as the way they learned about the technique. This method is named after Moshé Feldenkrais, a physicist who originally studied martial arts and later focused on the intersection between the body and movement. His method focuses on gentle movements in conjunction with awareness to improve the function of the body. He published multiple books explaining his methods in the 1950s and taught classes until his death in 1984.
It was while studying the Feldenkrais Method that physical therapist Sean Gallagher began experimenting with foam rollers. A former dancer, he had trouble finding a doctor who understood his body, leading him to study movement therapy as he focused on working with fellow dancers. Gallagher began having Broadway dancers try foam rollers as an affordable way to self-massage and tend to their bodies.
Micheal Clark, DPT, is the other big name you’ll hear in regards to the rise of foam rolling in sports therapy. Clark is the founder, president and CEO of the National Academy of Sports Medicine, and his book, “Integrated Training for the New Millennium,” and accompanying texts are what helped introduce foam rollers to a larger public. With photos of self-massage techniques being performed with the tool, Clark’s book not only introduced people to the foam roller but provided education on how to properly use it. This led to a greater understanding of the self-myofascial release performed with a foam roller.
As opposed to myofascial release, which has to be performed by a physical therapist or massage therapist, foam rollers became a more effective tool for athletes to use on a daily basis.
“It allows you to grade your own pressure, thus preventing you from tensing up and enabling the muscles to be more responsive to the effects of massage,” explains Brick. “This includes increase in blood flow and release of trigger points and spasm of overworked or fatigued muscles to prevent injury.”
TYPES OF FOAM ROLLERS
Even though Clark’s work introduced the foam roller in the late 90s, the U.S. first patent was filed much later, in March 2004 (and wasn’t published until November 2006). The foam roller in the initial patent looks different than the current iterations; it was filed by physical therapist Stacy Barrows, who, uncoincidentally, studied the Feldenkrais Method. Her roller isn’t the perfectly round cylinder we usually see today — one side of it is flatter in order to help with balance — and is now known as the SMARTROLLER.
So just how many iterations has the foam roller gone through? It is hard to say, but there are now thousands to choose from.
“In the almost 30 years I have been in the fitness industry, I have seen a lot of fitness fads and devices come and go; the foam roller, however, is here to stay,” says Erin Truslow, a physical therapist and founder of Big Pistachio Triathlon Coaching and Personal Training in Austin, Texas. “I have seen it develop from a simple, somewhat firm styrofoam 3-foot roller to the ones we see today.”
Many early foam rollers were simply made of foam. PVC pipe was then added to provide more structure (and make the foam rollers hollow inside) to provide a deeper massage experience. From there, variations like nubs and notches allowed athletes to target specific areas of muscle and tissue. Handheld versions facilitated ease of use, and small travel versions were developed so you can foam roll on-the-go.
“I have experienced many different rollers, from as simple as the Stick, to Trigger Point TP Therapy dense foam rollers to their newer cold steel rollers, the super knobby ones that look like medieval torture devices, ones with sliding adjustable wheels and the Roll Recovery R8 that has eight smaller Rollerblade-type wheels that roll both sides of the area at once,” adds Truslow.
FOAM ROLLING AND YOU
No matter the foam roller you use, it’s important to make sure you are using it correctly. Whether you reference Clark’s book or work with a doctor or trainer, the key is to not rush it.
“People tend to go too fast, which doesn’t allow them to effectively use their body weight to create enough pressure to adequately release muscle tension,” says Brick. “By foam rolling slowly, you are more likely to find more localized ‘problem’ areas within a muscle. Once you’ve found a given trigger point, stop on that spot and roll up and down that smaller area up to 10 times before continuing to foam roll through the rest of the muscle.”