Have you tried foam rolling? Yes, that stretch with a roller that hurts so good. I have a love-hate relationship with foam rolling, but I know that it has many benefits for my body and muscles. Foam rolling is well known in the workout world for improving mobility, decreasing soreness, and increasing recovery. But, did you know that it is equally beneficial during pregnancy?
In addition to the benefits mentioned above, foam rolling during pregnancy can help improve circulation and decrease fluid retention, which is a typical symptom of pregnancy in the third trimester. It can show up most commonly as edema in the mother’s feet, ankles, and legs. It can also present in the fingers, hands and forearms. This stagnant fluid can be irritating and can be painful when moving, but with foam rolling it can improve.
A review done by Gibwa Cole of a few studies on the evidence of foam rolling found that the effects of foam rolling, or self-myofascial release (SMR), can be linked to improvements seen in the cardiovascular system and the autonomic nervous system. He states that “the net result is a decrease in myofascial tone and improved arterial function,” which means relaxing muscles and improved circulation. In the review, it also states that “fascial stiffness is in part dictated by water content. The more ‘dehydrated’ the tissue the stiffer it is. When compressed, fascia has been shown to extrude water, which may suggest that compression applied during SMR could increase fascial compliance by temporarily changing water content levels. In turn, this facilitates increased movement and mobilization.” This is the target of foam rolling during pregnancy, we want to use the foam roller to move edema from the extremities back to the heart to be filtered out.
You may not remember from anatomy that muscle contractions are what helps push blood and fluid from your extremities back to the heart to be pumped out to be filtered and get oxygenated. So, while most pregnant women during their third trimester are relaxing with their feet up to help reduce swelling and they are trying to avoid lots of physical activity due to discomfort, their muscles are not contracting to help push the blood and fluid back to the heart. This is another reason foam rolling is beneficial for pregnancy, especially during the third trimester. The foam roller is essentially acting like your muscles and doing the contracting for you.
While foam rolling during pregnancy has not been well studied or researched, there are several studies supporting the benefits of foam rolling for similar conditions like swelling and tenderness in muscles of athletes. In addition to the review previously mentioned, a study done in 2015 found that through foam rolling “the most common mechanisms are decreased edema, enhanced blood lactate removal, and enhanced tissue healing, which are mainly due to the increase in muscular blood flow.” Foam rolling is increasing circulation, which in turn is helping the muscles and surrounding tissues improve healing. According to this study, “similar to other research, we found that a 20-minute foam-rolling session caused participants to experience substantially less muscle tenderness.” Pregnant women suffering with tender, swollen legs can find comfort that a few minutes spent foam rolling at home can have significant benefits to their pregnancy.
And as a positive side effect, “the ability of SMR to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system may also be beneficial in treating conditions characterized by increased sympathetic drive, such as stress, coronary artery disease, and fibromyalgia.” We all know that having a baby can bring on more stress than our already stressful daily lives. Why not foam roll some of that stress away too?
Now that we know all the great benefits of foam rolling for pregnancy and athletes, let’s learn how to foam roll during pregnancy. Follow along with these pictures and descriptions to learn the most common ways to roll to improve swelling.
The most common areas of complaint for pregnant women are the glutes and piriformis, which cause symptoms similar to sciatica. To foam roll this area start by sitting on the roller and place one foot/ankle up on the opposite knee, as shown in the picture. Then you’ll want to tilt your pelvis to the side with your leg crossed over. With your hands supporting you on the floor behind you start rolling back and forth targeting the middle of your glute. If you need extra support or are unable to lean back you can use yoga blocks or a couch to support your arms.
Another way to stretch this area is by sitting in a chair placing one ankle over the opposite knee to rest, see pictures. With a straight back slowly lean forward and feel the stretch in your glute. Lightly press your knee of the foot that is resting on your other knee down to get a deeper stretch. This is great to do at your desk or while watching T.V. at the end of the day.
Rolling the sides of the legs, or IT bands, can greatly improve mobility and decrease swelling. This area is very common to see tightness and pain in everyone, but during pregnancy you may experience extra tightness and swelling as your pelvis adjusts to the expansion of baby and preparation for birth. Laying on your side with the foam roller at the hip for stability, make sure your arms and top leg support you on the ground. Relax the bottom leg while keeping it straight and slowly roll the foam roller down the side of your leg ending just above the knee and returning back to the hip.
Sitting on the foam roller, rest your arms behind you on the floor or on yoga blocks (or the like) to stabilize yourself. Gently roll backwards towards your hands, so the roller moves down your hamstrings. Find those tender areas and spend a little more time on them. Continue rolling up and down the back of your thighs a few times to really get a deep stretch. Your body weight should add enough pressure to feel a good, deep stretch.
Start on all fours on the floor, placing the foam roller between your legs, as shown in the picture. The leg that you will be working on will be stretched out behind you and your upper thigh is placed on the roller close to the end, so it can fit comfortably without being in the way of your other leg that you are kneeling on. Your hands are on the floor to support your torso and help roll back and forth. You can roll back and forth from top of your thigh to top of knee, but avoid rolling over knee, as well as, side to side to get more inner thigh.
We can’t forget about the feet! Make sure to give lots of love to your feet because they are taking all the pressure for you. While sitting in a chair or on the couch, use a small ball (like a golf or lacrosse ball) to roll under your foot. Start at the middle of your foot and roll back and forth to the toes and just to the heel bone. You can adjust the pressure by pressing down more or less depending on what your body is telling you.
Each of these target areas should be rolled to your tolerance. You want to make sure to find those tender spots and spend a little more time on them because those indicate problem areas. You don’t have to spend a lot of time on each area, 30 seconds to a minute is sufficient, and you can always start with less and work your way up. And don't forget to breathe!! Most importantly, you must breathe through your time spent foam rolling. Deep slow breaths will help relax your body to get a deep stretch, give your body the oxygen it needs to replenish your muscles, and help you focus on something other than the discomfort.
Movement is life and we want to continue to move as much as we can all the way up to birth. Take this time to give yourself some love while your body is working so hard to grow and nurture your baby. Happy foam rolling!
Cole, G., The Evidence Behind Foam Rolling: A Review. Sport and Olympic-Paralympic Studies Journal.
Gregory E. P. Pearcey, David J. Bradbury-Squires, Jon-Erik Kawamoto, Eric J. Drinkwater, David G. Behm, and Duane C. Button (2015) Foam Rolling for Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness and Recovery of Dynamic Performance Measures. Journal of Athletic Training: January 2015, Vol. 50, No. 1, pp. 5-13.