When you utilize a foam roller to alleviate your tender calves or quads after a workout, you might perceive any discoloration that develops later on as evidence that the tool is functioning. As the adage suggests, circumstances must deteriorate before they can improve — even when it concerns recovery techniques, correct?
Not precisely. Here, a physiotherapist dissects the origins and potential dangers of discoloration after foam rolling — and divulges pointers on how to minimize those tender spots following the rolling process.
The Origins of Discoloration After Foam Rolling
In case you didn’t know, bruises commonly form when the petite blood vessels in close proximity to your skin’s surface rupture (sometimes due to the force of impact), resulting in blood leakage and the emergence of a dark, tender mark, according to the Mayo Clinic. However, can the act of rolling a foam piece up and down your physique induce the same reaction?
As it turns out, it is frequently customary to experience bruising after foam rolling, but it is not indicative of a commendable job, claims Leada Malek, P.T., D.P.T., C.S.C.S., S.C.S., a board-certified specialist in sports and physiotherapy. Instead, bruising often signifies that you exerted excessive pressure, persisted for an extended duration, targeted the incorrect areas, or engaged in a combination of all three, she explains.
You’re Applying Excessive Pressure or Prolonged Duration
There exists no established protocol for the duration you should allocate to foam rolling, but generally speaking, you should dedicate just 30 to 60 seconds to each spot while gradually gliding the tool along your body, asserts Malek. If you surpass that timeframe, you venture into the realm of discoloration, she cautions.
Similarly, there is no specific recommended force to exert during rolling, as what may seem excessively harsh for one person might be excessively gentle for another. However, if you are pressing to the extent that you experience soreness or tenderness following the session, there is a likelihood of encountering bruising, notes Malek. “Certainly, excessively prolonged or forceful rolling on a muscle can result in discoloration,” she adds.
You’re Applying Foam Rolling in Incorrect Areas
Even if you are implementing the precise amount of force for a brief period, you can still develop bruises if you roll a foam roller over thick, noncontractile tissues like your IT band or excessively taut muscles, according to Malek. “The objective with the foam roller is to induce relaxation in the muscles,” she elucidates. “However, if you were to roll over your IT band or any excessively rigid area, it might resist the pressure.” The same reaction may occur when you roll near your joints (for example, rolling down your quadriceps near your knee), as the tissue composition differs in that region, reiterates Malek.
It’s no longer entirely muscular — it transforms into a slightly more tendinous state, and that’s not precisely pliable and spongy,” she declares. In simpler terms, that tissue doesn’t possess as much “flexibility,” so using an extremely firm foam roller on it could potentially lead to the formation of bruises.
Rolling on or near a bone can also initiate unpleasant bruises, says Malek. “If you were to bend your lower back and simply roll up and down on the lumbar spine, that’s not going to feel very good,” she says. “So shift to the side a bit so you get more of the muscle mass rather than the actual bone.”
Of course, you may still develop bruising after foam rolling if you suffer from a blood-clotting problem or a blood disease, which can cause you to bruise easily, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Hazards of Bruising After Foam Rolling
Foam rolling to the point of bruising may seem like no big deal, but in some cases, doing so can have serious health effects, including hematomas, which cause swollen, raised, painful bumps, says Malek. Just like bruises, hematomas develop when blood vessels break, but rather than being reabsorbed by the body, the blood clots in an organ or tissue, according to the National Cancer Institute. Hematomas can last a month or longer and may require medical attention (think: surgery), according to the Cleveland Clinic. “Those develop more commonly after an impact, like if you’ve been struck at the leg, [but] you could potentially encounter those [with foam rolling],” says Malek.
Furthermore, if you’re consistently developing bruises, your muscles and tissues will only remain tight, says Malek, as bruising triggers your body’s inflammatory response which can result in stiffness. News flash: That’s the exact opposite of what you’re hoping to achieve by foam rolling, says Malek.
How to Prevent Bruising After Foam Rolling
If you’re consistently waking up to purple spots the day after a foam rolling session, there are measures you can take to keep any bruising under control. First, avoid rolling near your joints, bones, and tense muscles and tissues. Then, apply less pressure to the areas you’re foam rolling and spend less time treating those spots, suggests Malek. If you haven’t already, you can also try a softer, non-textured foam roller, which puts less pressure on your body and won’t dig into your skin, she adds. If all else fails, try a handheld muscle roller stick so you can easily control the pressure, recommends Malek. (
TL;DR: “If you’re developing physical bruising after foam rolling, I would be very mindful of it and switch it up because you shouldn’t be walking away from a foam roller with a bruise,” says Malek. “That’s not the goal of using a foam roller.”
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