Earlier last week at the gym, a member came over to me while I was foam rolling and asked what the purpose it it was. The foam roller is something I’ve been using regularly for about 3 months now and it has made a huge difference in how I feel before, during, and after workouts. Without further ado, I’d like to dedicate this post to the what, why, and how of foam rolling.

What is the foam roller?

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Isn’t that the fanciest contraption you’ve ever seen?! 😀 It’s a cylinder made of dense foam that you, yes, roll around on. There are different lengths and densities which are intended for foam rolling specific muscle groups in the body. Although there’s nothing very pleasant about foam rolling at the time it’s being done, people that are newer to the technique might find it less painful to use a softer roller.

What is it supposed to do?

Foam rolling is a form of self myofascial release, which means self-massage, or returning the fascia that surrounds our muscles (as well as bones and organs) to its original, flexible state. As we work out, put stress on the muscles, and generally just live our lives, tension builds up and trigger points or scar tissue build up. The fascia become tough, and may become a source of injury or pain. By performing self myofascial release (for example, with foam rolling), the fascia returns to its original state, muscles relax and experience less soreness, and flexibility improves.

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How do you do it?

Foam rolling can be performed on many muscle groups. I usually roll out my quadriceps, glutes, iliotibial (IT) band, hamstrings, and gastrocnemius, but you can also apply pressure to other areas such as the lats, adductors, hip flexors, trapezius and rhomboids. If I were foam rolling my calves for example, I’d start with the roller near the back of my knee, then move myself backward slowly using my hands so that the foam roller moves further down my calf. I usually do them one at a time, stacking one on top of the other to apply more pressure (similar to the photo below). As soon as I find a sore spot (or a trigger point), I roll back and forth a few times for about 30 seconds until the ‘knot’ is gone.

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Need a demonstration? This source has some videos that will show you how to foam roll various muscle groups, and my lovely blogger friend Susan recently posted a video about foam rolling – check it out!!

How should it be incorporated into workouts?

There’s a bit of debate about this, but from the various sources I’ve read, it can be done before or after a workout. The benefit of doing it before is that muscle density decreases a bit, and helps you to warm up more efficiently. The benefit of rolling after is that the pressure relieves stress built while you were working out. Rolling after a cardio workout makes a lot of sense to me, and I usually do it right after I finish running when my muscles are still warm. However, foam rolling at any time of day is a bit like stretching – it’s not going to do any harm. I particularly love to do it after work, when I take off my heels… it feels wonderful in a hurts-so-good kind of way. I won’t pretend that it doesn’t hurt, because it does! 🙂

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It’s also worth mentioning that you don’t have do all your rolling after cardio exercise – it can also be done after weight workouts to help prevent muscle soreness the next day.

A few final pieces of advice:

  • If you’re a beginner, use a less-dense foam roller and increase the length of time you roll out for as you become more experienced.
  • Keep breathing!! You might make some crazy twisted faces while you’re doing this but make sure you breathe, and try to relax the muscles as much as you can.
  • Avoid rolling directly over joints and bones – just stick to the muscles.
  • Move slowly, and keep rolling points of tension until they are relieved.
  • As is the case with all types of physical activity, it’s wise to check with a doctor to make sure it’s ok for you to do.

So there you have it! Now it’s your turn. Tell me…

  • Do you foam roll on a regular basis?
  • Have you noticed any big changes in the way you feel since beginning to use a foam roller? I used to have a spot in my right hip that would get really sore if I ran several times in a week consecutively. I certainly don’t feel it any more (knock on wood), and my legs don’t feel “dead” like they used to if I tried to hop on the treadmill for the 4th day in a row.