Foam rolling is often compared to a poor man’s massage. While foam rolling is decidedly more DIY than massage, both modalities have a similar goal: To use pressure on muscles to make them feel better. Both use long, gliding motions over the muscle and contact against your skin to achieve their goal. Both can improve your flexibility and help with recovery. However, they’re not comparable in terms of how they should be used and what they can do for your body.
Foam rollers are cylindrical pieces of compressed foam that come in various lengths, shapes and densities. If you’re new to foam rolling you should start with a softer roller. It can be fairly uncomfortable to roll your muscles, particularly if you’re sore or tight in one area. A foam roller doesn’t work with you, you have to work around the foam roller. It lies on the ground and you have to contort your body around it, trying to figure out how to apply the right amount of pressure so that it doesn’t feel downright painful.
Massage also comes in different forms. Some techniques are more focused on relaxation, while others use heavy pressure and pressure points. Massage is much more effective at getting into the muscle. A massage therapist can use their hands, knuckles, elbows and even feet to get into your muscle in ways a foam roller cannot.
IDEAL TIME FOR FOAM ROLLING
James Sinodinos, DPT, a certified strength and conditioning specialist, recommends foam rolling before workouts for his patients. “The foam roller prepares your muscle tissue for the workout” says Sinodinos.
From a practical standpoint, foam rollers are more user-friendly before a workout for two reasons. The first is you can take your foam roller to the gym and use it immediately before you workout. A 2018 study published in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy shows foam rolling before a workout can increase your flexibility without hurting your performance. In fact, foam rolling can increase your flexibility as much as stretching.
The act of foam rolling forces you to move and warm your body up. It’s even been compared to the plank in terms of physical exertion. Since you’re working to move around the foam roller, your body temperature increases, which may explain the gains in flexibility.
Another advantage the foam roller has over massage before a workout is it’s stimulating. This comes in handy before a workout because you want to be energized and focused, not relaxed and lethargic.
After your workout, however, it’s better to relax and let the recovery process begin. Your sympathetic nervous system is active during exercise as it stimulates your heart to beat faster, wakes up your metabolism to power your muscles and makes you more focused. After a workout, it’s time to turn on the parasympathetic nervous system so you can relax, recover and digest food. Massage is much better than foam rolling at promoting relaxation.
HUMAN TOUCH: THE BENEFIT OF MASSAGE
When treating patients, Sinodinos uses both massage and foam rolling. One of the benefits of massage is he can pinpoint muscle tissue he wants to work on, rather than passing over a large area of muscle with the foam roller.
If you’re injured or in pain, massage therapy is probably better than foam rolling. Massage decreases pain, according to a 2016 study published in Pain Medicine. Foam rollers can’t accurately target specific areas of the body, and they can’t work around your injuries. If you can’t get into position to foam roll then it won’t work.
For rehabilitation and therapy, massage has a missing element the foam roller doesn’t: human touch. “There’s absolutely something to be said about human touch and getting my hands on the tissue” notes Sinodinos.
A 2017 study published in Scientific Reports investigated the social effects of human touch. While gentle touching acts as a mood booster, the researchers found the benefits are much deeper. Gentle touching, such as massage, can create feelings of social bonding which helped subjects feel less lonely. Massage has a mix of psychological and physical benefits.
IDEAL TIME FOR MASSAGE
When you get a massage you’re much more relaxed and your mood improves. You’ll also get a better night’s rest. These benefits go far in improving recovery. Relaxation is key because it shifts your body into recovery mode, making it ideal after a workout.
When you relax, your parasympathetic nervous system takes over for your sympathetic nervous system. Your parasympathetic nervous system slows your heart rate and breathing. It returns blood to your organs so you can properly digest food. Massage helps you return to this parasympathetic state.
Your mental health benefits from massage, as does your physical health. While massage and foam rolling provide some similar benefits like decreasing muscle soreness, the benefits from foam rolling aren’t much to write home about. In fact, a 2019 study published in Frontiers in Physiology calls the effects of foam rolling on recovery “rather minor and partly negligible.”
Massage can help you recover between workouts by decreasing muscle soreness and improving blood flow. Not only is it more effective than foam rolling, it’s more effective than many other recovery methods. A 2018 study published in Frontiers in Physiology found massage was better at reducing soreness and feelings of fatigue than cryotherapy, active recovery, compression garments and contrast water therapy.