Today’s post is all about one of my favourite things. After my workouts, it can be a source of bite-your-lip-to-stop-the-4-letter-words pain. But in the hours and days that follow, my love for it is just as strong as my love for watermelon, Asics, green smoothies, and beautiful mounds of veggies (and I heart those things a lot.)

foam rolling with compression socks

It’s the foam roller, without which I’d be a sore, stiff, likely injured and unhappy girl. This month I’m focusing hard on the recovery part of my training regimen, and these little beauties are playing a key part.

Once upon a time, I wrote a post about why foam rolling is important, but that was a couple of years ago and I’m now more knowledgeable and more experienced so I thought it would be a good time for an update. I also got all fancy-like on the weekend and made you a video, but we’ll get there in a second. First, let’s talk about the purpose of this whole thing.

What does foam rolling do?

Before I get into the science nerd explanation, here’s a look at the general benefits:

  • Increases flexibility and loosens tight muscles (if you’ve ever experienced DOMS, foam rolling is my favourite trick for making sure it doesn’t happen)
  • Prevents injury
  • Helps to correct muscle imbalances
  • Relieves muscle pain, knots, or ‘trigger points’ in your muscle fibers
  • Works like your own personal massage therapist (only cheaper!)
  • Improves circulation of blood and oxygen to muscles

foam rolling

But how? Here’s the skinny:

Foam rolling is a self-myofascial release technique, and while that might sound like a complicated term, it’s really quite simple. When you use your muscles to do things, whether it’s a really hard workout or just your day-to-day activities, muscle fibers can develop knots in them. They also have a really thin layer – kind of like plastic wrap – around them, and the same thing happens to it as well. The knots can build up to become larger clusters of scar tissue that get painful and restrict your ability to move. They also cause problems with the circulation of blood and oxygen to the muscles, which is pretty important if you’re exercising. I like to think of it like a kink in a hose – the water is supposed to flow through the hose, but if it’s tangled, that can’t happen.

By using a foam roller to smooth out these kinks, we’re able to break up that scar tissue and keep the muscles nice and flexible. The fascia (the plastic wrap-like stuff) that encases the muscle like a sausage stays smooth, and circulation is just peachy. Oh, and my favourite perk: decreased muscle soreness. Spend just 5 minutes foam rolling after a run or lifting session, and it’ll mean not having to grip the toilet seat or a chair with both hands the next day every time you go to sit down – well, at least not as hard. All of these are the same benefits of paying for a sports massage, only you’re doing it for yourself.

Does it matter what kind you use?

Yes. While you might not think there’s a whole lot you can do to a cylindrical piece of foam, the variety of rollers available out there is getting to be pretty broad.

1. Size. Some are full-length (3-4′ long depending on the brand) with a larger diameter (about 6″), which makes them particularly good for wide muscle groups like those in your upper back, or if you want to try to save time by rolling, say, the quadriceps of both legs at the same time. But you’ll also find compact foam rollers that are convenient for traveling because they’re only about a foot long. While that may sound small, don’t you worry – they still do the job!

2. Surface. Some are smooth, and others have a grid, ridges, or bumps on them, like my RumbleRoller. The point of the bumps is to increase the ability for the pressure to stimulate deeper layers of muscle tissue than a smooth roller. They’re spaced around 2 inches apart, which means that not only can you roll over them forwards and backwards, but you can also shift a bit from side to side. This allows you to apply pressure to harder-to-hit areas – kind of like a masseuse’s thumbs and elbows.

on the rumble roller

3. Density. Quite possibly the most important feature of them all. Using a roller made of loosely-compacted (oxymoron?) foam won’t do you much good. Higher density rollers however, allow you to put more pressure on the muscle knots or trigger points you’re targeting, and therefore, do a better job of ‘ironing out the kinks’ in your muscle fibers and fascia. A RumbleRoller’s bumps are more dense than muscle but not quite as dense as bone, and as far as regular rollers go, they’re definitely the toughest kind I’ve tried.

rumblerollers

Foam rollers tend to be either white, blue, or black, and these generally tell you about their density. I like to think “white is light” (as in, not much pressure), and “black is badass” – especially if it has bumps on it. If you’re brand new to foam rolling, you might want to try a lighter density first until you get the hang of it. Using a foam roller definitely doesn’t tickle (and if it does, you’re doing it wrong), but it should be like other kinds of stretching – sore enough to feel a comfortably-uncomfortable amount of tension, but not so hard it leaves you in pain.

How do you do it?

You can roll out any of the big muscle groups in your body, but it’s best to stay away from joints and bones because the whole point is to target soft tissue by hitting the nerves and fascia between the muscles.

Here’s your general step-by-step instructions:

  1. Position yourself so that one end of the target muscle group is on top of the foam roller. For example, if you’re rolling your hamstrings, start near the back of your knee and use your hands to inch yourself forward.
  2. Roll slowly along the muscle, inch by inch, applying more or less pressure by transferring your weight either into your supporting arms/foot (to reduce) or into the area in contact with the roller (to make it harder). Then try rolling in the other direction.
  3. If you hit any particularly tight/sore spots, slow down and spend 15-30s working on them if they’re too sore. Be sure to focus on the area surrounding the sore spot too.

And for those of you that like videos, here you go. Note that if you’re reading this in your inbox, you’ll need to come on over to the post. Or if you’re having trouble with the video below, view it on Youtube.

When should I do this?

Depending on your preferences, you could incorporate foam rolling before or after your workout. Rolling before can help to stimulate the muscles and get them ready for action, but I prefer to use my foam rollers after I’ve run so that I can smooth out any knots that might cause me stiffness later. Having said this, don’t feel you have to wait until your workouts to hop on your foam roller, nor do you have to be working out hard in general. Our muscles get stiff from day-to-day repetitive use – think sitting at your desk, commuting, carrying heavy purses – you get the idea. There’s no harm in whipping out your foam roller and showing your bod a little TLC while you’re watching TV at night or just before you crawl into bed.

rumble roller and beastie balls

My RumbleRoller and Beastie Balls – if you’ve ever used a tennis or lacrosse ball as a self-massage tool, these are even better!

How often?

I like to foam roll after every run and if I miss a session (which typically only last 5-10 minutes), my body definitely notices the next day! This month I’ve been adding an extra session in before bed 3x per week, and I find that not only does it keep my muscles happy but it also helps me loosen up before going to bed. However, if you’re fairly new to it, try starting with a short 5 minute roll 2-3 times per week. If it feels good and provides you with relief (even if it’s not so enjoyable at the time!) then increase to a few more sessions.

So now I’d love to hear from you…

  • Are you a foam rolling fan like me? What kind do you use?
  • What does your post-workout cool down or recovery regime look like?