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The Foam Roller: How and Why You Should Use It

Posted on November 11, 2015 at 10:00 AM

Singer Shakira tells us that our hips don't lie. Most physical therapists would agree. Your hip mobility, or lack thereof, reveals your susceptibility to injury, as well as your athletic performance potential. Since your hips create a bridge between your upper and lower torso, their flexibility and alignment affects your entire body. Static and dynamic stretching, combined with self massage on foam rollers, helps you maintain the health of your hips.

Self-myofascial release, also known as “foam rolling,” has transformed from a once mysterious technique used only by professional athletes, coaches, and therapists to a familiar everyday practice for people at all levels of fitness. Recent information, technology, and affordable products have introduced an increasing array of training and recovery methods to the average person.

Self-myofascial release is a fancy term for self-massage to release muscle tightness or trigger points. This method can be performed with a foam roller, lacrosse ball, or your own hands. By applying pressure to specific points on your body you are able to aid in the recovery of muscles and assist in returning them to normal function. Normal function means your muscles are elastic, healthy, and ready to perform at a moment’s notice.

Do I Have Tight Muscles or Trigger Points?

Trigger points are specific “knots” that form in muscles. They are unique and can be identified because they will refer pain. Pain referral, for our purposes, can most easily be described as the pain felt when pressure is applied to one area of the body, but the pain is felt or radiated in another area.

A common example of a trigger point is felt while foam rolling your iliotibial (IT) band as it causes pain to radiate up to the hip or all the way down the leg to the ankle. When rolling or working on tight/sore muscles you will experience discomfort or pain. Think of it like the pain you get while stretching. It should be uncomfortable, but not unbearable, and when you are done it should feel better.


What Causes Trigger Points and Tight Muscles?

Both have the same contributing factors including training, flexibility, movement patterns, posture, nutrition, hydration, rest, stress, and other lifestyle factors. Our bodies learn to compensate for what we throw at them every day, but we can exceed our ability to recover via too many intense workouts, poor posture, and other lifestyle factors.

This is when you need assistance using recovery techniques or through seeing a professional. If you lived a perfect life with everything in balance, you would theoretically never have either of these conditions, however I’ve yet to meet that person.

How Does Self-Myofascial Release Work?

Deep compression helps to break up or relax tight muscles and adhesions formed between muscle layers and their surroundings. Imagine you are tenderizing your own muscles. They should be soft and supple like a baby’s muscles. However, if our muscles are not taken care of properly we can experience loss of flexibility, adhesions, and painful movement.

The deep compression of self-myofascial release allows normal blood flow to return and the restoration of healthy tissue. The body naturally wants to be healthy and strong, but sometimes an extra boost is needed to achieve optimal muscle and tissue health.

How Do I Know What to Foam Roll and How to Do It?

Should you need help in identifying area of concern, feel free to contact me to discuss which area/s to focus on.

If after using the foam roller your movement improves, you have a more specific strategy to follow. Secondly, trigger points and tight muscles can be found through self-exploration, utilizing the list of techniques below and exploring each one.

To foam roll properly, apply moderate pressure to a specific muscle or muscle group using the roller and your body-weight. You should roll slowly, no more than one inch per second. When you find areas that are tight or painful, pause for several seconds and relax as much as possible.You should slowly start to feel the muscle releasing, and after 5-30 seconds the discomfort or pain should lessen.

If an area is too painful to apply direct pressure, shift the roller and apply pressure on the surrounding area and gradually work to loosen the entire area. The goal is to restore healthy muscles - it is not a pain tolerance test. You may also use other objects to work on muscles such as a tennis ball, lacrosse ball.

Never roll a joint or bone. Avoid rolling your lower back. To target these muscles I recommend using tennis or lacrosse balls. If you are having issues with your neck, refer these issues to an appropriate medical professional, as these areas they can be more sensitive and require more advanced attention.


What Happens After Foam Rolling?

You may be sore the next day. It should feel as if your muscles have been worked/released, however you should not push yourself to the point of excessive soreness. Drink plenty of water, get enough sleep, and eat clean. This will help to flush your system and fuel your muscles more effectively. Give it 24-48 hours before focusing on the same area again.

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Reply Susan
6:08 PM on May 29, 2016 
Thanks for getting me back to rolling away those knots! It does work!
Reply Olivier
11:02 PM on January 11, 2017 
Yes! I have become such a huge fan of foam rolling (and using a lacrosse ball when sitting at work as well).

The benefits of using it are just too many to list... improved range of motion (so fewer injuries as a result), improved blood flow and arterial stiffness, and much more.

Covered some of them in further detail here:
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