I am sure many of you have seen a cylinder piece of foam in your local gym, or perhaps a half foam roller with one side flat and the other side rounded. You may have seen someone doing some crazy movements on one and thought, “That looks crazy and awkward.” Well it may look a little crazy, and in the beginning, it may be a little awkward and painful, but I can tell you from personal experience that it does do its job. Foam rolling is a concept that utilizes your own body weight to “massage away” restrictions caused by joint stiffness and muscle tightness. I put “massage away” in quotes because it is not like any massage you have ever had, and it is definitely not the nice relaxing massage. I will just include all the concepts and some tips for you, and at the bottom of the page I have a link to a site that has lots of pictures of actual techniques to use.
A foam roller can be used in multiple ways, and can help improve flexibility, function, performance, and can help reduce injuries. Although it takes a little more work on your part than a sports massage, it is much less expensive and shows similar benefits. If you are looking to improve mobility and range of motion, reduce scar tissue and adhesions, decrease overactive muscles, improve quality of movement, or even just fill in gaps between hands on sessions and deep tissue massages, this could be what you are looking for.
Properly using the foam roller will result in all the benefits of traditional stretching, and will also break down soft tissue adhesions and scar tissue. By using your own body weight in certain positions on the foam roller, you can perform myofascial release, break up trigger points, and relax tight fascia, all while increasing blood flow and circulation of soft tissue. So what does that all mean?
A little background to help you know exactly what is going on. Fascia are thin tissues that cover all the organs of the body, including every muscle and every fiber within each muscle. A myofascial unit includes the muscle and the fascia that covers that particular muscle and its muscle fibers. Hopefully you aren’t lost quite yet. Due to various reasons, including disuse, lack of stretching, and injury the fascia and underlying muscle may become tight and stuck together. This is known as a muscular adhesion and leads to restricted muscle movement. It causes pain, soreness, and reduces flexibility and overall range of motion. We often notice this type of adhesion when it forms what we call a knot or trigger point.
Here’s a little more to get you even more confused. All forms of stretching stretch the myofascial unit (muscle, fibers, and fascia). When muscle fibers are injured (could be an actual injury, from weight lifting, or from repetition in your daily life such as sitting at a computer all day), the fibers and the fascia become short and tight. This uneven stress can then radiate through the fascia to other parts of the body, causing pain and other symptoms. Myofascial release helps to release this uneven tightness. Everything in your body is an integrated functional unit, meaning if one segment is not functioning efficiently, then the other components must compensate. This leads to tissue overload, fatigue, faulty movement patterns, and initiates a cumulative injury cycle.
There are some other things that I will just briefly explain only because they are very important as to why this concept works. These include things like muscle spindles and golgi tendon organs (GTO). In a nutshell, muscle spindles are responsible for changes in muscle fiber length and the rate of that change, so that knee jerk reflex that you get when a doctor taps you on the knee is a perfect example of your muscle spindles at work (result in a change in muscle length). GTOs are responsible not for muscle fiber length, but for the amount of tension put on that muscle. They are what inhibit muscle activity if too much tension is generated. This is a protective mechanism our body has developed to help reduce injury when lifting too much weight, so theoretically you will drop something instead of tearing a muscle (not always, but that is the purpose of these GTOs). This is the main concept behind foam rolling. Basically, if you push on a tender spot, and move around on that spot, the muscle length changes constantly, forcing the muscle spindles to shorten and tighten, which can cause more pain. If you push on a tender spot, and just hold constant pressure, the GTOs can force the muscle spindles to relax, and this decrease in tension helps to decrease pain, improve function, and help bring a normal length-tension relationship to that muscle.
Some symptoms of myofascial distress include any sort of back pain, including chronic back pain, low back pain, and thoracic back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, fibromyalgia, fibrositis, headaches, plantar fasciitis, complex pain complaints (hip, knee, and ankle pain for example), and trigger or tender points.
Benefits of using a foam roller include first and foremost the fact that it is inexpensive, lightweight, and easy to use. It does help to break away unwanted scar tissue, correct muscle imbalances, increase joint range of motion, help alleviate muscle tightness, decrease soreness and relieve joint stress. There is also some evidence that it may help improve coordination, balance, and communication between nerves and muscles. You can get the benefits of stretching, and then some! Foam rolling helps to both reduce adhesion and scar tissue accumulation, along with eliminate soreness and tightness that can be present on a daily basis.
Now that you have all this information, there are some reasons why you would not want to use these techniques. You want to stay away from recently injured areas, or if you already have chronic pain conditions such as fibromyalgia, you would not want to cause more pain. These techniques do tend to cause pain, especially in the first few weeks of starting, so if you already have a chronic pain condition I would stay away. Also, if you have circulatory problems this may not be the best option because these techniques do put pressure on a certain area for a period of time.
Positioning is crucial! Poor alignment of the foam roller can cause stress on supporting muscles or joints, and can lead to excessive fatigue of supporting muscles due to having to hold yourself on the foam roller. Once you get used to it, these awkward positions will seem natural and less difficult to hold. One of the most commonly cited problems is that people tend to have a hard time relaxing because they are trying to hold themselves up. My answer to that is that you tend to have lots of adhesions and tightness in the beginning, so it hurts to fully let all your weight on the foam roller. As you progress, and tightness starts decreasing, it will be easier to fully relax and focus all your weight onto the foam roller instead of on your hands or feet. Give it time!
General guidelines to follow include working on each position for 1-3 minutes on each side of the body, and you can do the entire body or a program 1-2 times daily. You want to start close to the middle of the body and work your way out away on each muscle, so for the quadriceps, you would start close to your hip, and work your way down towards the knee (do not actually get to the joint). Stay off joints entirely (some may argue that when getting your hip muscles you are on your hip joints, but that is an exception), and you will find that the closer to a joint you get, the more painful an area will be. Here is the key…if tenderness or pain is felt, you need to stop rolling and try to REST on that painful site for up to 45 seconds. If you continue to roll when there is pain present, it activates those muscle spindles that cause more tightness and pain. Resting for 30-45 seconds on a painful area will activate the GTOs and will inhibit the muscle spindles, thus reducing muscular tension. You can spend more time on a particular area of the body if it is tighter than other areas. As you progress, the total amount of time you spend on the foam roller will gradually decrease due to improvements in muscle tightness, adhesions, and scar tissue, and due to naturally aligning the body and decreasing the likelihood of overstressed muscles. Using these self myofasical release techniques should naturally improve tissue quality.
Foam rolling is a process. It takes time to develop the techniques, and it takes time for your body to feel comfortable. Foam rollers are inexpensive and they can target just about every muscle group. Keep in mind that foam rollers come in different shapes, sizes, and densities. Start with larger and least dense rollers and then progress to more dense and smaller surface area foam rollers as you progress. Do follow the different suggestions when using them, because you can cause more problems if you use it incorrectly. This site has some great pictures and explanations about different positions and muscle groups.