Stretching, Massage or Foam Rolling?- Ever wondered if a foam roller would be just as good at loosening you up as your massage therapist? Or prefer the idea of relaxing on a massage table to getting through a stretching routine? These three ways of targeting tight or sore muscles each have their benefits – read on for the evidence.

The methods

Whether you’re trying to prevent injury, improve performance, or ease tension and pain, there are several ways to help flexibility and function. Eachaims to reduce tightness and increaselength and elasticity in muscles, tendons, ligaments and connective tissues.But they have different ways of working – so which one is right for you?


Massage involves applying manual pressure to muscles and soft tissues. Research shows it’s a great way to improve flexibility, ease tension and improve circulation. And beyond its physical benefits, massage can reduce stress and anxiety, and aid sleep.

If you’re looking at massage for sport performance and recovery, timing is key. Studies on intense physical exercise show that a post-workout massage can speed recovery time, improving flexibility and delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS).

Pre-workout, there’s no evidence that massage improves physiological performance. However, psychological preparation is also important. Athletes who have a preparatory massage may not produce more power as a result, but they may be less anxious and more focused.

And there are other good reasons to enjoy a massage in the run-up to a race or an event. It’s well-recognised that, to mitigate the risk of injury, your body needs to be prepared for your activity. Muscles need to be elastic and in good nutritional condition to cope with physical and metabolic demands. Since massage improves both flexibility and blood flow, it can be a great tool for your preparation.

So what about injuries? The research looks promising. Massage is an effective treatment for trigger points – painful muscle knots that can cause cramping and limit muscle function. In addition, some studies have looked at specific conditions, finding that massage provides some improvement for shoulder pain and low back pain. There’s also evidence showing massage techniques can treat tendon problems, and that it reduces inflammation in traumatised muscle tissue.

Foam rolling

Using a foam roller or spiky ball also applies pressure to muscles, so you might think it’s just as effective as massage. But there are essential differences.

A massage therapist has a range of ways to apply that pressure. They may use kneading, percussion, light strokes, deep pressure or friction, depending on the aim. They can alter the stroke and the pressure according to feedback.And in addition, they’re applying that pressure to a relaxed body.

You can also vary the intensity of pressure when self-massaging using a foam roller. But it can be hard to do accurately, as you often use bodyweight to apply the pressure. Andit can be uncomfortable!As discomfort leads to tension, you may end up applying the pressure to a tensed muscle, rather than a relaxed one. There’s a risk that excessive pressure could damage muscle.

However, foam rolling has a part to play. Done correctly, it improves flexibility and can have some positive effects on performance when used pre-activity. This may be in part because the applied pressure alleviates trigger points. Or it may be to do with the fact that maintaining positions on a foam roller require muscle activity that prepares you for action, in a similar way to other warm-up exercises.

And after activity, it’s possible that foam rolling can help your muscles recover more quickly than rest alone.

So consider adding foam rolling to your warm-up or recovery, especially if you don’t have access to a massage therapist.And it can be a great adjunct to massage therapy, too, helping maintain the gains into the longer term.

To see maximum benefits, though, it’s important to make sure you have good technique. Consider having a guided session with a therapist before you go it alone.


Stretching lengthens muscles, allowing greater flexibility and reducing feelings of tightness and tension. And we all know how good a stretch can feel. But does stretching help protect you from injuries or aid performance?

To see the benefits, it’s important to know when to stretch. If you’re looking to improve your long-term flexibility, you need to invest some time. It requires regular and sustained stretching. A static stretch needs to belong enough to align connective tissue fibres, which surround and permeate the muscle. Current research suggests starting out with a stretch of15–30 seconds, increasing over time to 3 minutes.

And, in addition to these mechanical changes, sustaining your stretch allows the muscle’s stretch receptors time to acclimatise to the new length. This calms the nervous system’s contraction reflex, and instead stimulates the relaxation reflex. That’s why you can push a little further after you’ve held a stretch for a while.

Plus, the type of stretch you do is important. Evidence shows that dynamic stretching, where you take a joint through its full range of movement,is a better method of improving flexibility during a warm-up than either foam rolling or static stretching, as it won’t impair performance. Researchers suggest that if you want to perform better and reduce injury risk, your warm-up should include aerobic activity, dynamic stretching, and sport-specific activity. Static stretches are commonly done post-workout when you’re already warm. Stretching this way doesn’t help with the dreaded DOMS, but there are still benefits for flexibility and relaxation.

Why do some muscles still feel tight, even with stretching?

However, clinical experience tells us that stretching isn’t always an answer.Why is it that sometimes your stretched muscles go right back to being tight and sore?

It comes down to figuring out the underlying reason. Usually, the muscle is responding to problems elsewhere in the body. Once that reason has been addressed, stretching has more success.

There are many possible explanations for constantly tight muscles.The tension may really be neural, rather than muscular. Nerves running through a muscle need to be able to slide, friction-free, as the muscle moves and contracts. If there are areas of adhesion and irritation, tension will develop in the muscles the nerve supplies.

Perhaps the joints around the muscle have a problem. The nervous system then restricts the movement of those joints by tightening nearby muscles.

Or maybe you’re asking too much of the muscle. However flexible a muscle is, if it’s not strong enough to cope with physical demands, damage will ensue. And microtrauma that isn’t rehabilitatedcan lead to scarring and shortening of the tissue.

Additionally, postural problems can result in muscle imbalances. Some muscles become short (such as hip flexors in people who sit all day) and the opposing muscles are held long (in this case, the hamstrings). Stretching muscles that are already stretched, such as those long hamstrings, may feel pleasant because it interrupts the pain signals. But it won’t help – the posture needs to be addressed, the hip flexors lengthened, and the hamstrings strengthened.

Stretching, rolling, or massage?

In summary, then, each method has its place. You can apply all these techniques successfully, if you use them at the right time, and you do them correctly.

Here are the key facts:

  • Foam rolling can help prepare your muscles for a workout as part of your warm-up routine. It’s best done in conjunction with dynamic warm-up activities.
  • However, excessive pressure from a foam roller could lead to muscle damage. Rolling should be avoided over injuries such as a muscle tear. Seek your doctor’s advice if you have diabetes, lymphoedema, or varicose veins.
  • Stretching can be incorporated into a regular exercise programme to improve flexibility.
  • Dynamic stretches are useful during a warm-up, and static stretches can help relax and lengthen muscles post-workout.
  • Massage therapy has a host of benefits, including improving tissue health, injury treatment and prevention, reducing anxiety and aiding relaxation.
  • Massage techniques are varied and can be tailored to fit your aims.
  • Post-workout massage can aid recovery and reduce DOMS.

The lowdown

Now you know the benefits and drawbacks of these muscle-health methods, you can choose which to use and when. Combining them at the right stages can mean you get the best of all worlds.

If you’re constantly stretching and foam rolling, though, and you still feel tight, stiff or sore, it’s best to seek the help of a qualified therapist.

A good massage therapist can identify and redress any areas of imbalance and compensation that you might not be aware of.

Lack of mobility is a common problem, and it can have detrimental effects on your posture. Incorporating yoga therapy into your routine is a good way to counteract the negative pressures of daily life. You’ll see huge improvements in your flexibility, while practising safely under the watchful eye of a yoga specialist. Plus, you’ll see the health benefits of better breathing and stress reduction.

Or you might wish to try a course of corrective exercise. By evaluating biomechanical function, a corrective exercise specialist develops a personalised plan of strengthening and stretching that facilitates optimal performance.

And if you have pain concerns, an osteopath can diagnose and treat many kinds of muscle, bone and joint disorders.

So stretch and roll appropriately. But if you need a helping hand, a professional therapist is your best option. Book online today.

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