Foam Rolling 101
Walk into any specialty running store and the chances are good that you’ll bump into a bin overflowing with foam rollers. Big ones, smooth ones, small ones and knobbly ones – it’s enough to confuse any well-meaning runner. So what exactly is the deal with foam rolling? Should you roll, or is it just a passing fad? And, if it isn’t, how should you roll? And which roller is suitable for you?
Here, in a nutshell, is everything you need to know about foam rolling and how it can help improve your running performance.
Why Should You Use a Foam Roller?
First off, in order to get to the bottom of why foam rolling is important, we need to recap some human biology. Foam rolling is basically a form of self-myofascial release, or, in other words, loosening up the fascia to eliminate scar tissue and the adhesion of soft tissue. But what exactly is fascia, you ask? Well, fascia is connective tissue that consists of densely packed collagen fibers that surround each muscle in your body. With consistent running, which boils down to a repetitive process of muscle breakdown and repair, the fascia ‘reacts’ by thickening and shortening over time in order to protect the underlying muscles. Restricted fascia then lead to adhesions that may result in soreness, restriction of movement, changes in your gait and injury. It’s therefore clear that releasing the fascia may clear up or prevent all of the issues.
A foam roller can also be used to target trigger points or ‘knots’ that have developed in muscles over time. Trigger points usually start off as micro-tears that become chronic through a process of repetitive tear and repair. These tears then lead to built-up tension in affected muscles.
Once your fascia is loosened up, muscles are free to move normally. Loosened-up fascia also contributes to increased blood circulation and improved mobility, balance and gait. Which is something that every runner wants, right?
The Correct Way to Use a Foam Roller
But before you rush off to buy a foam roller, a word of caution. Rolling away without knowing what you’re doing can do more harm than good, so be sure to arm yourself with proper knowledge before getting down to business. Here are a few foam rolling dos and don’ts for getting the best results and preventing irritation and injury:
- The characteristic ‘hurts-so-good’ associated with foam rolling is perfectly acceptable. Grimacing pain is not.
- If you’re working on a trigger point, keep in mind that several shorter bouts of rolling are generally more effective than one extended session. It’s therefore best to work on a specific area for a short while, and then move on to other muscles before returning to a trigger point for a second or third time. Also, two to three shorter rolling sessions spread throughout the day are more effective than a single, long session.
- Light, isolated stretching for about 10 seconds after working on a trigger point is a good idea.
- Research is still not conclusive on the best time to use a foam roller. For now, though, experts believe that both pre- and post-running foam rolling can be beneficial. A foam roller can be used pre-run to increase both blood flow to the muscles and mobility. In this instance, the focus should be on general, overall rolling and not trigger point rolling. Trigger point rolling, on the other hand, should be saved for after your runs. Focus on existing trigger points, as well as areas that might have tightened during your run.
- For detailed guidelines on how to roll each specific muscle group, go here or here.
- Never roll over joints and bony areas, like your kneecaps.
- Don’t keep at it for too long. Placing sustained pressure on a specific spot for extended periods of time may lead to nerve- and tissue damage, or bruising. Instead, spend only about 30 to 90 seconds on each muscle group and regulate the amount of body weight used to apply pressure. Also don’t spend more than 10 to 15 minutes in total on foam rolling in a single session. If you feel the need to roll for 20 minutes or longer in a single session, you probably have a more serious underlying issue that needs professional help.
- But also don’t use a fast rolling action. Your brain needs time to coax your muscles into relaxing and adapting to the compression, so don’t make your rolling action too fast. Short, slow rolls are ideal.
- Don’t roll directly where you feel severe pain. Attempting to roll out inflamed areas may increase tension as well as inflammation. Instead, use a system where you roll indirectly before you go direct. But what does this mean? Basically, spend a bit of time working in the region immediately surrounding painful areas before using larger, sweeping motions over the entire affected area.
- Don’t over-zealously roll the lower back. Foam rolling your lower back may put too much pressure on the bony part of your spine, thereby contributing to back pain. If you have chronic lower-back pain, the chances are that the problem is caused at a location lower down in your body, e.g. the hips or hamstrings. Rolling out these areas may therefore prove more effective. When in doubt, though, contact your caregiver for a proper diagnosis.
- Don’t apply too much pressure when rolling your IT bands. By placing your legs on top of each other and rolling out the IT bands, you’re squishing the muscle against the bone. This may cause extreme, unnecessary pain and lead to bruising. Instead, manage the pressure that you place on the IT band by putting your top foot on the floor and supporting the body. The pressure can further be alleviated by placing your top hand on the mat for support.
Which Foam Roller Is Right for You?
A classic foam roller has a cylindrical shape and is approximately three feet long and six inches in diameter. It is generally made of polyethylene foam or EVA and can be color-coded according to firmness. The softest rollers are usually white, with black being firmest.
A number of variations on the classic, log-shaped foam roller is, however, also available. This includes shorter rollers; soft, hollow rollers; and rollers with knobs or ridges for added pressure.
As a general rule of thumb, if you’re new to foam rolling, start off with a softer, even-surfaced roller. Using a super firm roller with knobs or spikes from the get-go may cause unnecessary pain and even bruising, or put you off foam rolling altogether. Instead, ease into it and gradually work your way up to a firmer roller, or one with protrusions, over time.
If you travel a lot, it might also be worth your while to invest in two separate foam rollers. A standard-sized roller is ideal for keeping and using at home, and provides a larger surface for support and stability. A shorter, smaller roller, on the other hand, is handy for accompanying you on your travels.
So while the benefits of regular foam rolling are undeniable, it’s also clear that simply diving into it willy-nilly will not serve you well. Arm yourself with knowledge and stick to what you’ve learnt – your body will thank you!
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