Hurts So Good: Foam Rolling 101

When I first learned about foam rolling several years ago, I initially thought it was odd and useless.  I was working as a newbie personal trainer at a large health club and I remember one of the master trainers raving about it so I figured I would give it a shot.  I laid on the long peace of foam, rolled vigorously back and forth for like 5 seconds and insisted it had no benefit.  Luckily for me and my future client, that master trainer caught me with my terrible foam rolling technique and took some time to show me how to properly use it.  And let me tell you, it changed my life!  Since then, foam rolling has not only become a regular part of my training regimen (just as important to me as a training run or lifting session) but also a staple in our training programs for all of our athletes.  Foam rolling and other forms of SMR (self miofascial release), if done properly, have several great benefits which I will discuss below.  However, people often neglect rolling because they feel as if they have time or do not see immediate benefits from it.  So I will also cover proper technique, key areas to roll and tips for incorporating rolling into your training routine.

Benefits of Rolling
First, let’s discuss why we roll.  Our active lifestyle, from running to lifting weights, causes our muscles to tighten up.  Also our inactive lifestyle, like working at a desk all day or spending a lot of time driving, can have a similar affect.  These tight areas, or “trigger points,” can eventually lead to weak areas which, if neglected, can potentially lead to injury.  Loosening up tight tissue not only alleviates discomfort, but it can also help you become a more efficient athlete with increased range of motion, better form and improved running and economy.  Waiting until you feel significant tightness and pain, however is not the solution and often where people go wrong when it comes to SMR.  Foam rolling is not just for rehabilitation, rather it is a great tool for preventing muscles from getting too tight, which of course will aid in recovery, prevent soreness and, of course, prevent injury.

When to Roll
As I stated above, don’t just wait until your sore to roll.  Use roam rolling as a preventative tool as a part of your regular training routine to see the most benefit.  At our gym, we have our athletes roll out before each training session, and even during and after if necessary.  I myself, as a runner and weight lifter, typically start each of my training sessions off with several minutes of foam rolling focusing on key areas.  So to answer the question of “when should you foam roll?” here are a couple of key things to remember:

  1. Rolling can essentially be done daily
  2. Do not wait until you are sore, roll regularly
  3. Roll BEFORE training sessions as a part of your warm up to loosen up tight muscles, increase range of motion and increase circluation
  4. AND roll AFTER workout as a part of your cool down to massage out tight muscles to aid in recovery and prevent injury
  5. If you experience a particular twing of tightness DURING a workout, take a moment to roll that specific area before getting back to it
  6. Rolling does not necessarily have to occur during training, it can be done first thing in the morning or even at night, just make time for it!

Types of Rollers
At our facility, we have several types of tools including regular long rollers, half rollers, “The Stick,” and lacrosse balls for our athletes’ SMR needs.  I typically suggest to people to first invest in a long roller that can be purchased anywhere from online to running stores and even Target or Marshalls.  You do not have to break the bank buying the latest and greatest products in SMR.  A simple long piece of foam will serve as a great tool to loosen up those tight muscles.  Here is a break down of what we use and for what:

  1. Long Roller: Can be used for most areas, especially larger muscle groups like quads, glutes and adductors.  Long rollers are also great for the back, lats and of course those pesky IT Bands.
  2. Half Roller: Although not necessary if you have the long roller, half rollers can be a little more user friendly for hamstrings and calf muscles.
  3. “The Stick”: Is great for zeroing in on tight calf and soleus muscles as well as peroneals.  If you do a good amount of traveling, The Stick is a great investment because of it’s size, it can be a great SMR tool for on the go.
  4. Lacrosse Ball: Yes, you can purchase a fancy rolling ball from a running store, but if you can get your hands on a lacrosse ball, there are several areas you can roll with this simple tool.  The neck and shoulder area, certain regions of the hips and the rotator cuff are all areas that a hard lacrosse ball can help loosen up.
  5. Others: If you head into a running store or search around online, you can be overwhelmed with the practically endless types of SMR tools available as well as the claims that each product is “the best in the industry.”  My advice when it comes to starting off with foam rolling (and actually when you start off with anything) is to keep it simple and fairly inexpensive.  Invest in one good roller that seems to suit your needs and commit to using it before breaking the bank on all the products on the shelves.

Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Foam Roller
I’ve discussed the importance of rolling, when to roll and of course what to use.  Now I will cover some key things to remember as you roller in order to get the most out of it.  Like I said above, my first experience with foam rolling was less than impressive, and this was of course I was doing it all wrong.  Many times, I will see people lay on a roller, rapidly roll back and forth for a handful of seconds (pretty much exactly how it went down the first time I tried it), hop up and proceed with their workout or leave the gym thinking they just successfully broke up all that tight tissue.  Sure they have seen pictures in magazines or other people at the gym foam roll the same way, so they think they are doing in right.  And maybe they did get something out of it that way (mostly likely a placebo effect though). In order to feel the full benefits from SMR, one must be a little more methodically with their rolling.  So here are a key things to consider next time you grab your roller, stick or ball:

  1. Start with larger muscle groups (like the quads, glutes and hamstrings) then work your way into the smaller ones.
  2. Find the “trigger points,” or areas of tightness and discomfort, and focus on breaking up those areas the most.  If you feel nothing over a certain muscles, don’t spend too much time there.
  3. Roll directly over the tightest spots, as it becomes less and less tense, begin rolling further away from that area to cover more ground and loosen up more tissue surrounding it.
  4. Take slow deep breaths, letting out long slow exhales as you roll over those extra tight spots that cause you discomfort while rolling.
  5. Spend on average about 20-30 seconds per area, longer for the tighter areas.  This really should take only about 10 minutes of your time, so no excuses on skipping out on it!

What to Roll

Although you will want to start off rolling most major muscles, you’ll soon find that some areas require more attention than others.  Though this will vary from athlete to athlete, some of the most common areas for runners include glutes, IT band, quads, abductors and calves.  Like I mentioned above, spend some time working out those particularly tight spots, but be sure to take a holistic approach and be attentive to all areas.  Your body will surely thank you for it in your performance and recovery!

For more information on rolling, stretches and other exercises for runners, be sure to check out my services page or contact me today for a FREE, no obligation Strength2Run consultation to learn how to take your performance to the next level!



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