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Why, When, and How to Use A Foam Roller

In recent years, foam rolling has gone mainstream. Once a self-massage technique used only by professional athletes, coaches, and therapists; foam rolling is now an everyday practice for people at all levels of fitness. There’s a reason for the popularity of this self-massage technique: it’s simple and it works!
With the (usually foam-based) cylindrical muscle rollers now widely available in a variety of designs and firmness levels, there’s never been a better time to start. Here’s what you stand to gain if you haven’t tried foam rolling, and how to do it better if you’ve already started.

What is foam rolling?

Foam rolling is also called myofascial release. But what is fascia? And why do you want to “release” it? Fascia is the thin tissue that connects our muscles. Think of it as your body’s internal packaging—it helps muscle groups cooperate as integrated units. When it’s healthy, fascia is flexible, supple and glides smoothly over your muscles. But binding in your fascia can form for a variety of reasons, such as muscle injury, inactivity, disease, inflammation, or trauma. Even just sitting at a desk all day can get your fascia “gummed up” and stiff.
A foam roller is a simple cylinder (usually made of foam or flexible plastic) which you can lay on in a variety of positions, allowing your body weight to put focused pressure on affected muscle groups. Try rolling your quads, glutes, and hamstrings—or even muscles in your back, hips and shoulders. Rolling over problem areas can help release that built-up tension in your fascia and re-establish the integrity (and optimal performance) of muscle tissue.

Why is foam rolling so beneficial for endurance athletes?

When you are doing a highly repetitive movement such as running, swimming, or biking, you’re typically overusing some muscles and underusing others—especially if things aren’t in perfect balance. The muscles that get overused tend to get tight, and a tight muscle doesn’t function properly. When you foam roll, you can help improve symmetrical (ideal) muscle function by ‘resetting’ tight areas. By taking a few minutes around each workout (and each day if necessary), you can help prevent imbalances and overuse injuries.

How to Foam Roll

It is better to be too soft than too hard. It might feel tender as you roll through the tissue but it should not be agonizing. To keep it simple and systematic, I like to divide the muscle that you’re rolling into three segments—bottom, middle, and top. Give each section a few passes up and down, move onto the next one, and then finish off by giving the entire length of your muscle a pass over.
With each pass through the muscle group, you can then work deeper into the tissue for more release. It is very possible to find several trigger points throughout your body. When you hit a spot that’s especially painful or tight, pause here and try to relax. Give it time and the muscle should release—anywhere from 5-30 seconds. For more precise areas, try something like a lacrosse ball or tennis ball. As you get to know your body and how it responds to foam rolling, you may go shorter or longer as needed.

When to Foam Roll

Foam rolling can be performed prior to and after your workouts. Before exercise, rolling will increase tissue elasticity, range of motion and circulation (blood flow). This can help you move better during your workout and protect you from injury.
Foam rolling post-workout is a great way to enhance recovery. Focus on all of the major muscles you just worked, with an extra emphasis on the areas that feel problematic. By stimulating blood flow in affected areas, you’ll dramatically increase oxygen to your sore muscle fibers and reduce recovery time. In fact, most elite athletes get massages regularly for this reason. While nothing can quite replicate a good sports massage, you can enjoy many of the same benefits at home (or between massages) with a foam roller.
Thank you to Lauren Babineau for her contribution to this article
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