Foam Rolling 101

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Foam Rolling 101

Foam rolling is a self-myofascial release technique (SMR), which is a type of therapy used to eliminate general fascia restrictions. It is commonly used as a a warm-up for mobility and/or a cool-down for recovery, although it should not fully replace stretching. Research studies indicate that, when foam rolling precedes static stretching, individuals can achieve a deeper stretch because the muscles are warm and more pliable. This technique focuses on reducing pain or the discomfort that comes from the myofascial tissue—the tough, but thin membranes that cover and surround your muscles. This type of pain specifically comes from “trigger points” in deep areas within the tissue. Foam rollers come in many shapes, sizes and firmness, so be sure you are using one that fits your needs.

Why Foam Roll?

SMR is similar to a sports massage and can provide many benefits for overall muscle health. If you’ve experienced physical trauma, scarring or inflammation, your fascia may have lost some of its elasticity and become tight, restricted and a source of pain. Studies show that SMR can bring about significant reductions in soreness and increased flexibility when used on specific areas twice per week for 15 minutes at a time. Foam rolling is generally considered safe for all populations, but it’s a good idea to first check with your doctor, particularly if you have any heart or vascular illness or any chronic pain conditions.

Foam rolling has been shown to be helpful in addressing the following conditions:

  • IT band syndrome
  • Patellofemoral pain syndrome (runner’s knee)
  • Shin splints
  • Lower-back pain
  • Infrapatellar tendinitis (jumper’s knee)
  • Blood flow, overall soreness
  • Joint range of motion

Foam rollers are inexpensive and portable, and ideal for incorporating into your daily fitness routine. One of the latest and most innovative foam rollers is the GoRoll, which includes a stretching strap for static stretching. You can also purchase basic foam rollers online or at any sporting goods stores. 

To see the most benefits, perform SMR regularly for:

  • Increased blood flow
  • Better range of motion
  • Restoring muscle-length balance across joints
  • Increased circulation and blood flow for a faster recovery
  • Breaking up scar tissue and contusions
  • Relieving pain, soreness, stiffness
  • Increase flexibility which leads to lengthened muscles and a higher power threshold

How to Foam Roll 

Using your body weight, you can position yourself to target almost any soft tissue areas by rolling back and forth (about 2 to 6 inches) from your core to your extremities, avoiding bones and joints. Lightly rolling won’t have much of an effect, so make sure you put some pressure into those target areas by positioning yourself appropriately over indirect areas of pain before you target the specific spots. Slowly roll the tender areas for 30 to 60 seconds. The specific manual pressure and stretching used in foam rolling loosens up restricted movement, leading indirectly to lower pain levels. Expect some discomfort during your first few sessions. It may feel very tender or bruised at first, so be sure to start with just 5 to 10 seconds per area and rest a day in between foam-rolling sessions. If you have not experienced myofascial therapy work before, start with a softer foam roller and slowly progress to a denser foam roller. Drinking plenty of water after a session will help accelerate the recovery process. 

The only place to avoid direct foam rolling is the lower back (lumbar spine). Instead of using the roller perpendicular to the spine, position it parallel to the spine to target the upper- and mid-back, and the glutes/sacrum area. By loosening up other muscles surrounding the lower back, you can dramatically decrease pain and increase mobility, while protecting your spine and kidneys. 

Here is a suggested foam rolling checklist: 

Core: upper back, chest, abs, hip flexors, glutes, shoulders 

Extremities: calves, IT bands, adductors, quads, hamstrings, tibialis anterior 

There are many different recovery methods to help manage pain and to enhance tissue extensibility, but research continues to support the use of SMR when performed on a regular basis. Smaller myofascial therapy objects such as tennis and golf balls or your fingertips can help target more precise spots such as deep rotator cuff muscles and tendons in the hands and feet. 

Mollie MartinMollie Martin Contributor

Mollie is a Study Assistance Consultant at the American Council on Exercise who holds a BS in Psychology. She is an ACE Certified Personal Trainer, Medical Exercise Specialist, Group Fitness Instructor, Health Coach, Sports Conditioning Specialist, Behavior Change Specialist and has her CSCS through the NSCA. Mollie is also a boot camp instructor, rugby player, fitness coach and health enthusiast. Mollie moved to San Diego from the Midwest in 2012 to pursue her passion of playing rugby and to be able to participate in outdoor fitness year-round.

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