It’s not often that you get professional athletes, recreational runners, massage therapists, and physical therapists to agree. But when you do, it’s probably about the benefits of foam rolling.
Foam rolling is a method of self myofascial release (or self massage), that involves rolling over a cylinder of dense foam to help improve muscle fiber alignment, remove adhesions, break up scar tissue, and increase soft tissue mobility. It began to gain popularity as a recovery technique about 20 years ago, as the athletic world moved from the eighties popularity of techniques such as isometric exercise for injury rehabilitation, and towards a more European inspired process that includes manual or hands on treatment.
Foam rolling sounds simple, right? It can be, but there are some do’s and don’ts to effective foam rolling as well as specific muscles that respond best to this technique.
Do’s and Don’ts
- Focus on one muscle group or body part at a time. Foam roll the quads, then move to the IT band, then the hamstring, etc. It may take a few minutes on the foam roller before you find the area of that muscle that needs attention, so take the time with each muscle group separately before moving on to the next.
- Go slow! Yes, it may be more uncomfortable but a slow and steady rolling motion is more effective at helping re-align the muscle fibers and break up adhesions.
- Try to relax the muscle or area of the body on which you are focusing. Allowing that muscle to relax will allow deeper access to the muscle fibers.
- Use the foam roller for both warming up and cooling down. Foam rolling can increase blood flow to muscles, which can be beneficial prior to a run. It can also be used as a great recovery technique after a workout.
- Buy a foam roller that is high density foam. Buying a white, soft foam roller may be more comfortable but will not be effective. As you put your body weight on the foam, the cylinder shape will compress. Look for a roller that is dense enough to withstand your body weight.
- Assume you only need to foam roll when you have pain. Foam rolling is great for preventing injury, speeding up recovery time, and preventing pain. Foam rolling is best utilized as injury prevention and for maintenance, not only treatment.
- Only foam roll the same few muscle groups. Utilizing the foam roll as a tool for the whole body is much more effective than only foam rolling the calves, for example. Each body part and muscle group is connected to the others, for best results treat them all.
- Forget to roll all angles of muscles. Most of the muscle groups in the legs are groups of multiple individual muscles. Rolling just the front of the thigh, for instance, won’t access all of your quadriceps. You need to roll the inner and outer thigh, by shifting your weight right and left, to fully treat the muscle.
- Roll your lower back. Because of the curvature of your lumbar spine, the foam roller tends to fit nicely here. However, it doesn’t access any of the muscles on either side of your spine. Instead it places pressure directly on the discs and vertebrae. Use something like a lacrosse ball or tennis ball to access tight muscles on either side of your lumbar spine.
- Assume all pain is “good pain”. Differentiate between helpful discomfort and true pain. If any area of the body is experiencing acute pain, or you suspect you may have an injury, seek medical evaluation.