Foam rollers are magical tools that assist self-myofascial release (SMR). SMR is a technical term for releasing tight muscles, connective tissue and trigger points (sensitive points on muscles) with self-massage.
Using a foam roller to apply pressure to these areas often helps relieve tight, sore muscles and release tension in other areas of the body. That said, it’s important to note that foam rolling isn’t only beneficial after a workout. Some studies have shown that foam rolling before a workout or sports activity helps increase range of motion without reducing muscle performance. It also gives the muscles you’re about to engage a quick “warm-up.” After exercising, foam rolling feels heavenly and helps muscles repair themselves more effectively.
How to foam roll before a workout
When rolling before a workout focus on long, smooth movements. Target those chronically tight muscles like glutes, calves, quads, hamstrings and thoracic spine (upper- and middle- back). This will help increase blood flow and warm up the muscles. If you notice a particularly tight spot, you can roll over the area again with shorter strokes to release the tension.
After a workout, add 5-10 minutes of foam rolling to your stretching routine. You’ll feel the benefit and release fast, as your muscles are warm and primed for a good rolling.
Breathe deeply and allow your heart rate to come down. It’s important that you feel relaxed and aren’t contracting the muscles you’re trying to relieve. As you roll, relax into each trigger point. Combine long slow movements with shorter ones over pesky knots and trigger points.
What’s great about foam rolling is that you control how much pressure is applied and to what muscle groups. This allows you to focus on the areas that need the most self-myofascial release.
Here are some further foam rolling must-knows:
- Use your bodyweight: Lean into the foam roller to regulate how much or how little pressure is applied to each area being rolled out.
- Choose the right muscles: focus on the muscles you worked out or will engage during exercise. Spend at least 2 minutes on each muscle group.
- Treat tender spots with care: for each muscle group, apply pressure to tender areas for a short amount of time (20 seconds should do). This allows the affected area – likely a knot – to release. If you hold on a tender spot for a longer period of time, you run the risk of bruising the muscles or aggravating a nerve.
As a starting point, try this basic foam roller exercises from Coach Alba.
Hurts so good
Now that you understand why and how to foam roll, let’s address a pressing point: It hurts. But, it’s not the kind of hurt leaves you in tears — rather, it’s a deep tissue massage kind of hurt.
Think about it, you’re applying pressure to sore, tight areas of the body to release tension. It’s natural for foam rolling to be slightly uncomfortable. As you continue to roll, any tension should melt away. However, if you are extremely sore from an intense workout, you may want to avoid rolling directly on tight muscles. Instead, let your muscles recover and roll these areas the next day.
Where can I find a foam roller?
Foam rollers can be purchased at most sporting goods stores, online and in many physical therapy offices or gyms. As you shop, you’ll notice that foam rollers come in different sizes and densities. It is helpful to research which one will be best for you as a novice roller. For example, smaller rollers are good for travel, but larger, longer rollers are better for rolling out your back and legs. If you like a more intense massage, get a firmer foam roller. For less intensity, purchase a softer foam.
Foam roller alternatives
No roller? No problem. Below are some ways to practice SMR without a foam roller.
- Rolling pin. Yes, that thing you use for baking also makes a great SMR tool. It’s easy to hold, perfect for massaging the quads and hamstrings and ideal for travelers. You can find a similar roller at sporting goods stores, commonly called a “stick.”
- Bottle of wine. Before you crack open that bottle of vino, you can use it as a foam roller. Then, go ahead and enjoy a glass of wine or two.
- Tennis ball. A tennis ball can help you target hard-to-reach areas. Use it on your calves, between your shoulder blades, on the arch of your foot or your neck. A tennis ball is slightly softer than a foam roller and can get into areas a foam roller can’t.
- Lacrosse ball. Use a lacrosse ball the same way you would a tennis ball. It’s a bit firmer, but works well in the same areas.
Get creative and make time for rolling out your muscles, connective tissue and trigger points. Five or ten minutes is all it takes to loosen muscles, increase circulation and extend your range of motion. Happy rolling!