I was resting by the side of the pool during the Michigan Masters State Swimming Championship when a buddy of mine asked his wife, an accomplished physical therapist, if she’d give him a massage because his back was hurting. “I am not a massage therapist!” she replied with a sassy smile. “Go get a foam roller!”
I roared with laughter at her snappy comeback, but I was also intrigued. Could a foam roller dependably replace the private masseuse that I couldn’t afford anyway? Would rolling my back muscles around on something that looked like an overgrown packing supply somehow unlock strength gains and performance improvements and allow me to trim my training time?
Thankfully, I now know someone with the answers to these questions — because he needed to find them himself on a professional stage. Former NFL tight end Nate Lawrie founded the fitness company Brazyn Life following his retirement from pro football, and then used his Ivy-League-educated brain to design and manufacture The Morph — the world’s first collapsible foam roller. The Morph was boosted tremendously following its debut on Shark Tank, and now one of foam-rolling’s foremost intellectuals is here to tell us precisely what a daily foam-rolling regimen can and cannot do for your body.
What was it like the very first time you encountered or used a foam roller?
The very first time I encountered a foam roller was when I was on the football team at Yale. Foam rollers started showing up right around the early 2000s. They were just an extra thing in the weight room that no one really knew how to use, but people would try to get a quick massage with it either before or after a workout. Throughout my playing days, foam-rolling became more and more popular. The early versions were the cheap, styrofoam ones that would get really soft after three or four rolling sessions, but then companies really started to improve on the technology. So I started using it first in college, but then adopted the practice more and more as I progressed through my playing days.
During your first interactions with foam rollers, were you impressed by them?
I was somewhat impressed, but I also didn’t have the mindset toward recovery. Back when I was younger, recovery was this non-essential thing that some people did if they could fit it in. Honestly, my mindset when I first started foam-rolling was that I was going to get on the thing and maybe it’ll make me feel better, but I’m really going to focus on doing my power cleans. Now, looking back, I wish I’d taken it much more seriously from the get-go, because ultimately I did have some very limiting injuries that took a toll on my professional career because I didn’t have that early mindset around recovery.
Nowadays, I think more and more trainers and strength staff members understand that recovery is just as important as the training program, because if you’re not healthy, you can’t lift weights and you can’t perform. If you’re sidelined because of an injury or you have nagging pain, you’re just not going to be able to train effectively and see those gains. So recovery has become an important aspect of a good, balanced training program, and really allows you to push yourself harder in the weight room, on the field or on the court.
If I’ve just finished a brutal back training session, and I stretch myself out on a foam roller, what should I be feeling, and what is the foam roller doing to my muscles that makes it beneficial?
There are a couple different modalities that a foam roller provides: First off, if you’ve done a big back workout, and you’ve put a lot of strain on those muscles, when you foam roll at that point, it’s just like getting a deep tissue massage. By putting pressure on the muscles and applying that pressure in a rolling fashion, it’s flushing a lot of the lactic acid and metabolic waste from your workout out of your muscles, helping your muscles to bring in new blood and oxygen, and helping your muscles to repair themselves. That’s a big part of why foam rollers have been proven to drastically reduce delayed onset muscle soreness, because it’s helping muscles to recover faster.
It also prevents injuries. When you do work out like that, you can start to fatigue the muscles. A lot of times what will happen when you get a knot in your muscles or an adhesion is that the muscles have been overworked and gotten fatigued and dehydrated. You get this knot where that muscle is in a permanent firing state. By putting high pressure on that knot and applying it slowly, it signals to the brain that the muscle needs to disengage and release. So, again, it’s kind of like a deep tissue massage where you foam roll, and you really want to find those sore spots and tight spots, put a lot of pressure on them and allow the nervous system to tell that muscle to relax so that the muscle and fascia are working together properly, and you don’t end up with misalignment and cause further injury.
Is there an optimal amount of time that people should spend with a foam roller to achieve all of the benefits you just mentioned?
It depends on the workout and how you’re feeling. When you’re focusing on one muscle group, it might feel good to roll back-and-forth quickly, and then to go really slowly over those muscles to search for the tight spots so that you can spend more time working on those knots. In terms of overall time for rolling and doing recovery, it’s one of those things where you need to find your balance and do what works best for you. Thirty seconds is probably not going to be enough; 30 minutes may be too much in a lot of circumstances. If you’re doing really heavy workouts and doing them all the time, you’re going to need more recovery. If you’re doing light workouts, you’re probably going to need less recovery.
I personally like to foam roll more prior to a workout. With my body having played more than two decades of football, I have a lot of little spots that need to be addressed. If I don’t address them, when I’m working out, running or doing anything active, those spots will potentially lead to injury — or at a minimum, they’ll make me uncomfortable during my workout, and I won’t be focused on getting the most out of it.
When might a person be inclined to notice that they haven’t been taking recovery seriously and now it’s taking a toll on them?
The best practice is to be proactive about recovery. You don’t want to get yourself in a place where you’re starting to get nagging injuries, where a muscle has been strained, you have back pain or your joints are misaligned. If you’re doing the recovery process early enough, you can avoid some of those stress injuries and be able to move better. Typically, people will feel good and won’t foam roll, and then all of a sudden some sort of misalignment is leading to some kind of pain in their body, like joint pain, back pain or muscle pain. Once you’re at that point, it’s almost too late. You can correct a lot of those issues by adopting foam-rolling, but you’re not going to be training as hard during that time period. You’re going to be more focused on fixing whatever is hurting your body.
What was it that led you to take foam-rolling far more seriously?
Unfortunately, it was an injury. I was playing with the New Orleans Saints and suffered a really bad back injury. It came from a lot of wear and tear and stress. I had this disc herniation that basically stemmed from me overexerting myself and not placing enough focus on the recovery side of things and making sure my body was aligned. I had a back surgery, went into the recovery process and then had a pilates guru show me how to use a foam roller. They showed me how to use it to make my body feel better and get it back to normal, and how I could use it on a daily basis to make sure I didn’t reinjure myself. I adopted it, and I was able to play five more years of professional football after the back surgery. I owe a lot of that to having a serious mindset toward recovery, taking care of my body better and using a foam roller consistently.
If someone is seeking out a foam roller to address physical maladies or general discomfort, what physical problems should they not be looking for foam rollers to solve?
If you have a mechanical body issue that requires a surgical solution, or you have some sort of meniscus issue, disc issue or a soft tissue issue that needs time to heal, foam-rolling isn’t really going to help you. The best thing to do would be to talk to your doctor or physical therapist to get their advice. However, if you’re using a foam roller consistently, you can avoid a lot of those injuries and be healthier. It’s best used as a preventative tool, where it’s prehab rather than rehab.