You don’t get better when you work out; you get better by recovering from a workout. Recovery is greatly enhanced by following a repeating pattern of challenge or stimulus, followed by hydration and recovery or rebuilding.
When it comes to recovery, it is the hydration step in which foam rolling (also called self-myofascial release or SMR) can be of significant benefit.
To understand how SMR enhances hydration, imagine that you are holding a sponge under water. When you squeeze the sponge with your hand, you push water out of the sponge. When you release the squeeze (pressure on the sponge), it automatically pulls in new water.
In your body, better hydration in a muscle means there is more available water and nutrients that are important for muscular action and for healing. The building materials for muscular repair are delivered via blood flow.
Hydration isn’t about how much water goes into your mouth, but how thoroughly you move your tissues so there are no “backwaters or swamps,” which are areas of stagnation without inflow or outflow. This movement can include exercise, general movements like walking, and manipulation of the tissues via SMR techniques with a foam roller or other device.
To summarize, exercise generates a muscular challenge and establishes a need for hydration. When the body rests, muscles hydrate more effectively. In this case, rest refers to both active and passive (immobile) recovery. Active recovery is movement that is not challenging enough to break down muscle, and the application and removal of pressure using a foam roller is a form of active recovery.
There are three distinct methods of manipulating the tissue with a foam roller:
- Roll and Hold (RH) – Roll along the length of tissue and hold for about 20 seconds on the most tender spot you find and relax the muscle into the hold.
- Pin and Move (PM) – Hold a pressure point and move the joint, creating muscular motion over the pressure point.
- Cross-fiber (CF) – Massage perpendicular to the direction the muscle tissue runs.
Roller Position: Perpendicular to the thighs
Body Position: Prone on elbows
In a prone position on your elbows and with the roller positioned just above your knees on your thighs, rock side to side, bending each knee as you lean away from it.
Double Side-lying Inner Quad (Roller + Ball)
Roller Position: Between the knees running parallel to the shins; position the ball under the outside of bottom thigh
Body Position: Side-lying
Method: Pin and Move
With your knees bent and legs pressing into the roller, bend and straighten the top leg only.
Inner Thigh (Roller + Ball)
Roller Position: Perpendicular and underneath the thigh; position the ball between the thigh and the roller
Body Position: Sitting on the floor
Method: Roll and Hold
Using your hands, gently roll the roller to identify the most sensitive area(s) and then hold.
Calf Massage (Roller + Ball)
Roller Position: Perpendicular to the calf; position ball between the calf and the roller
Body Position: Sitting on floor
Methods: Roll and Hold, Pin and Move
Using your hands, gently roll the roller to identify the most sensitive area(s) and then hold. In the same spot, begin pointing and flexing the foot several times. Then draw circles with the foot several times in each direction. Move the ball to a new spot on the calf and repeat the sequence in a new area until all sensitive areas in the calf are explored.
Roller Position: Perpendicular to the torso, under one side of the rear hip
Body Position: Sitting on the roller on one glute with the bottom ankle crossed over the top thigh
Methods: Roll and Hold, Pin and Move, Cross-fiber
This familiar move is often performed somewhat inattentively, rolling back and forth with little intention. We are going to be more deliberate. Roll to identify the most sensitive area(s) and then hold (roll and hold.) In the same spot, begin pulling and pushing the knee toward and away from you (pin and move.) Now move your entire body to and from from the roller, pivoting on the point of contact between the roller and the hip (cross-fiber.)
Two questions many people have about rolling are: (1) What parts of my body should I roll? (2) How much should it hurt? If the area is tender like a deeply sore muscle, only when you press on it, feels a bit knotted, or you know it is an area of chronic concern due to your personal activity and injury history, then you probably need to roll it. As for how much it should hurt—it should be “comfortably uncomfortable,” but not wince-inducing painful. When things hurt a lot, it creates a negative physiological and psychological response. High pain causes a tightening and restricting response in the nervous system and also creates an unpleasant association with that activity—which you should certainly avoid if you’re expecting to perform a little bit of foam rolling every day to ensure healthy tissues.