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"Foam Rolling" : What is it? Do I need to do it?

Updated: Oct 20, 2020

All of my clients are introduced to "foam rolling" on their very first session with me. That should give you an idea how important I believe this very inexpensive and pretty-easy-to-use fitness "tool" can give your stiff or achy muscles some relief. Foam rolling is a form of Self-Myofascial Release (SMR). Fascia is the tissue that connects your muscles and helps to hold them and the rest of your body in place. Essentially, foam rollers could be called the poor man's massage therapist. They provide soft tissue work to the masses in any setting. But to get the most out of them, you need to know their nuances. I have been using them for over 10 years almost daily, so I would like to share my knowledge and that of other experts for you to get the most out of them.

A foam roller is simply a cylindrical piece of extruded hard-celled foam. Think swimming pool noodles, but a little more dense and larger in diameter. They are also now available in a number of densities from relatively soft foam to newer high-density foam rollers that feel much more solid. The denser the athlete, the more dense the roller should be. Large, heavily-muscled athletes will do better with a very high density roller whereas a smaller, younger or older athlete should begin with a less dense product.

It is safe for most people but is contraindicated for people with varicose veins, high blood pressure, diabetes, or pregnancy. Foam rolling is hard work that can even border on being painful. Good massage work, and correspondingly good self-massage work, may be uncomfortable, much like stretching. Therefore, it is important that athletes learn to distinguish between a moderate level of discomfort related to working a trigger point and a discomfort that can lead to injury. When an athlete has completed foam rolling, he or she should feel better, not worse. And the rollers should never cause bruising.

There is no universal agreement on when to roll, how often to roll, or how long to roll, but generally, techniques are used both before and after a workout. Foam rolling prior to a workout can help decrease muscle density and promote a better warmup. Rolling after a workout may help muscles recover from strenuous exercise. My preference is to use the rollers before every workout. In the evening if my muscles are sore, I will use them at that time too. It should only take you between 5 and 10 minutes to do several areas of your body.

Foam rolling works by massaging or releasing muscle and fascial tightness. The roller applies pressure, helping to manipulate and break up “knots”, stiffness and tension that can form in your muscles and tissue. To use a foam roller, slowly run the roller down stiff muscles (such as your calves, hamstrings, quads, TFL and middle back), using your body weight to apply as much pressure as feels comfortable. Slow and steady is key. Start by rolling along the length of the muscle. Take long breaths as you roll, as this helps to increase the flow of blood (and thus oxygen) to your muscles. You can also manage how much body weight you use. For example, when working your TFL band, plant the foot of your leg on the floor to take some of the weight off the roller. Pay attention to your posture. If you are rolling your quads, for example, you should be in a good plank position. If you are new to foam rolling, it can be slightly uncomfortable when you start, especially when you roll over muscles that feel tight. Go lightly if you find an area particularly painful; decrease the pressure slightly, or work on the surrounding tissue instead. If you find that your muscles are too sensitive, it might be time to take a rest day and allow yourself to recover.

Generally speaking, I recommend about 30 to 60 seconds on each individual body part. When you find a "trigger point," which is a place on the muscle that is more sensitive than the rest of muscle, stop rolling on that point and just hold it there for 15-30 seconds if possible. A tender spot (trigger point) is pain/discomfort that could be classified as 6-9 on a scale of 1-10. Don't push yourself too hard; take it easy. Be patient. This is not self-torture! As the days and weeks go by it will be less uncomfortable, and you will, I hope, find these 5 to 10 minutes actually enjoyable.

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