What is foam rolling?

If you have never used a foam roller, then you are missing out on one of the most effective tools available for exercise training, recovery and injury prevention. A foam roller is a versatile and inexpensive piece of exercise equipment. It’s basically a cylinder made of dense foam, and it’s the most popular mechanism for self-myofascial release (SMR). The use of foam rollers is gaining popularity among elite athletes of all walks of life because of the strong and usually immediate impact it has on their performance and overall health.

How does it work?

SMR is a fancy term for self-massage to release muscle tightness or trigger points. Trigger points are specific ‘knots’ that form in muscles. They are unique and can be identified because they refer pain, which means when pressure is applied to a trigger point in one area of the body, the pain is felt or radiated in another area. Trigger points can form when a muscle becomes overloaded, often after an intense workout. Releasing these trigger points helps to reestablish proper movement patterns and pain free movement, and, ultimately, to enhance performance.

Exercise causes micro tears and swelling in muscle fibers, which impinge on nerves and blood vessels. Over time, this can develop into adhesions and scar tissue. The use of a foam roller after a workout can help to smooth out these obstructions and break down adhesions, helping to increase blood-flow within the muscle, which in turn speeds up recovery and improves performance. It’s advised that you follow up with some static stretching of your muscles, as this helps them to return to their proper length.

How should you foam roll?

To foam roll properly, apply moderate pressure to a specific muscle using the roller and your body weight. Try not to roll too quickly – no more than one inch per second. Slow, focused rolling is better for big muscles like the quads, hamstring and calves. Pay attention to your body and if you come across any particularly tight areas, you can hold the pressure there for up to 30 seconds as the muscle slowly releases. If the muscle doesn’t release or you feel any unusual symptoms like pins and needles, be careful – it may mean you’re compressing a nerve.

Painful areas – When rolling or working on tight muscles, you will experience some discomfort. Think of it as being like the discomfort you get when stretching. If an area is too painful to apply direct pressure, move the roller and apply pressure on the surrounding area and gradually work to loosen the entire area. It should be a little uncomfortable, but not unbearable, and when you are done it should feel better.

Make sure you breathe! – Holding your breath sends a message to your brain that there is a perceived threat in your body. Your body reacts by causing muscles to tighten and constrict — the exact opposite of what we want to happen. While rolling, keep breathing regularly (breathe in for five seconds and out for five seconds). By focusing on your exhalation and relaxing, you can better activate the body’s healing mechanism.

Take care rolling the ITB – The iliotibial band (ITB) is a fibrous tendon that runs up the outside of your thigh. It often becomes inflamed after too much walking, running or hiking downhill. It usually does not respond well to heavy, prolonged rolling. The ITB reacts better to a few quick rolls, with body weight partially supported by your arms and your other leg. The fleshy, muscular part of the ITB called the tensor fasciae latae (TFL, which runs up to the front of the hip) can often give you better results, along with rolling the quads, hamstrings and calf muscles.

When should you foam roll?

Ideally, foam rolling should be done both before a workout as part of a dynamic warm-up, and afterwards as part of a cool down. As part of the warm-up, it should be the first thing that’s done, before any stretching or cardio work. Here, it serves to boost blood flow and reduce muscle tension. As part of a cool down, the rolling helps to flush out blood that has pooled in the working muscles and allows fresh nutrients and oxygen to come in and begin the healing process.

If you are limited by time and can only choose one time to foam roll, rolling before your workout gives the best results. Rolling for as little as five minutes before your workout can have a great impact on the quality of your training session.

After you roll

You may feel a little tender the next day. It should feel as if your muscles have been worked, but you should not roll yourself to the point of excessive soreness. Drink plenty of water, get enough sleep, and eat clean. This should help you to flush your system and to fuel your muscles more effectively. It’s advisable to wait 24 hours before focusing on rolling the same area again.

Thanks for reading!

This post has been written by guest physiotherapist Liam Mc Ginley.

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