Why You Really Need to Foam Roll and How to Get Started
Disclaimer: Always consult your physician before beginning any exercise program.
So, your weekend “rec league” basketball game turned into a full-contact sport. Maybe you zigged when you should’ve zagged, and you are Feel. Ing. It. We’ve all been there, one way or another. But don’t worry, that’s why foam rollers exist.
Unfortunately, foam rollers don’t provide a straight line to relief.. You’re signing up for a healthy dose of pain before you experience the benefits. In the eternal words of John Mellencamp, “Come on baby make it hurt so good!”
This article is for anyone who has ever foregone foam rolling — despite its benefits — in an effort to avoid momentary pain. We’ve compiled a combo of 10 benefits and techniques to help convince you that it’s time to get off the couch and show your muscles some TLC.
We are equipped with an intricate web of veins and vessels responsible for delivering oxygen throughout our body. However, tight tissues can limit blood flow, which may result in a wide variety of both minor and major health issues, including decreased immunity, reduced cognitive abilities and numbness in the limbs. Foam rolling to the rescue! Because foam rolling helps to break up tightness in the tissues, it helps blood — and all the necessary elements like oxygen — reach our organs and extremities the way nature intended. Even independent from exercise, some research from Japan has backed up this idea by linking foam rolling to improved arterial flexibility and vascular function.
Range of motion, or ROM, is pretty self-explanatory: it’s how far you can move your joints in different directions. So why is mobility such a hot topic these days? First, prevention. Keeping joints flexible means they are strong, balanced and injury-free. Second, increasing ROM is a necessary step after an injury or surgery to bring your body back to its optimal state. In both instances, a foam roller is a crucial tool. Use it during your warmup to release the soft tissue under your skin (called fascia, if you want to sound fancy) and prep your joints and muscles for work. Bonus: Unlike static stretching, which often causes a reduction in strength, foam rolling doesn’t decrease performance. Bottom line, expanding your body’s full ROM means you get a better and safer workout on the days you’re in the gym.
You can thank lactic acid for that OMG-I-can’t-even-walk feeling after a hard workout. It can make even daily movements, like lowering yourself into a chair, almost impossible. Luckily, foam rolling can help your body bounce back faster and reduce post-exercise soreness by stimulating the healing process. The sooner oxygenated blood can reach your muscles (see #1), the sooner you can start boosting lymphatic drainage (your body’s ability to flush toxins, i.e., lactic acid) and relieving pain. A 2014 study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise showed those who foam rolled had reduced muscle soreness up to 72 hours later, and improved vertical jump height, passive and dynamic range of motion, and muscle activation in comparison to the control group. Quite simply, shorter recovery time between workouts means you can get more sessions in and see better results sooner. Who wouldn’t want that?
Creaks and groans keeping you up at night? That’s your body’s way of telling you it’s time to tackle the tightness. Using a foam roller to gently release your spine and neck can help alleviate pain and tension and keep your restless muscles at bay while you sleep. However, unlike other foam rolling exercises you might use as a pre-workout warmup, these moves are far more passive. Try this simple neck stretch to elongate chronically short muscles and relieve tension headaches:
- Lay with the roller under your neck like a pillow.
- Slowly turn your head from side to side in a “no” motion to gently massage and release tension.
- Do not press your neck down into the roller. The weight of your head provides just enough pressure on these small muscles.
Learn the Moves
Now that you know why it’s so important to foam roll as part of your regular fitness regimen, learn the techniques to make it happen. The good news is you don’t need to to carve out an additional 30 minutes in your already busy schedule. All you need is about five to 10 minutes per day. Pick the muscle groups that need attention and perform each exercise for 20-30 seconds. Roll for longer at points of major discomfort.
Sitting in front of a computer all day probably means poor posture and an aching upper back. We might sound like a broken record by now, but foam rolling can help with that, too.
- Lie down with your back on the floor.
- Place a foam roller underneath your upper back and cross your arms in front of you, protracting your shoulder blades.
- Raise your hips off of the ground, placing your weight onto the roller.
- Push into your feet to roll back and forth or side to side, whichever feels good to you. Do NOT go past your rib cage.
- Alternate sides.
Your hip flexors are actually a group of muscles responsible for lifting your knee, kicking, walking, running and bending at the waist. In other words, everything. So if you move at all, you’ve probably experienced tight hip flexors at some point — potentially even now. And while we’re piling it on, if you sit at a desk for eight hours a day, your hips are in an unnaturally shortened position, which can also cause lower back pain. So, stay hip to your hip health!
- Lie face down on your foam roller with the roller located underneath and a little below your right hip.
- Angle your left leg to the side with the knee bent at about a 90-degree angle. (This is mainly just to get the left leg out of the way.)
- Place your forearms on the ground in front of you, supporting some of your body weight.
- Extend your right leg out straight behind you with your toes pointing backward and push the balls of your feet into the ground.
- Begin to roll slowly back and forth with some right-to-left movement as well.
- Repeat on the other side.
As humans living in 2018, it’s safe to say we’re all quad dominant, which means that, when given an opportunity, our quadriceps (the muscles in the front of our thighs) will compensate for other, under-used muscles like our hamstrings and glutes. This can lead to tightness and imbalanced muscles, or even injury. Rolling out the quads is a great way to relieve the pain that comes with overworking this muscle group and also signalling to the brain that it’s OK for your quads to sit one out on occasion.
- Lie face down on the floor with your weight supported by your hands or forearms. Place a foam roller underneath one leg and keep that foot off the ground.
- Shifting as much weight onto the leg to be stretched as is tolerable, roll from above the knee to below the hip.
- Repeat on opposite sides.
If there’s one thing foam rolling teaches us, it’s that our bodies are intricately connected. Tight glutes are often the root cause of pain and discomfort in other areas of your body, especially the lower back. Foam rolling your glute muscles allows you to access your piriformis, a muscle located deep within the glutes, which is a great way to indirectly relieve lower back pain. Here’s how:
- Place the foam roller under your glutes.
- Bring your right leg up and rest your right ankle above your left knee.
- Slowly roll through your right hip and glute.
- Repeat on the other side
Whether it’s from running or wearing high heels, our calves are often balled up with tightness. Foam rolling this muscle can be tricky, but totally worth the effort.
- Sit on the floor, straighten your legs in front of you and place your lower legs onto the roller.
- Position the roller slightly higher than your heels. Place your hands on the floor next to your hips and straighten your arms to lift your lower body off the floor
- Rock forward and backward to move the roller up and down on your calves.
- For a more intense stretch, cross one foot over the opposite ankle and gently press down with the top foot.
However, not all foam rolling is actually “rolling.” Try this variation on the standard roll by placing your calves on top of the roller and moving your ankle in all directions:
- Option 1: Flex and extend your ankle.
- Option 2: Windshield wiper your feet side to side to gently access the muscles.
The human foot is comprised of 26 bones, 33 joints and more than 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments — and boy do they take a beating. You could use a small roller made specifically for feet, as pictured. Or simply grab a tennis, lacrosse or bouncy ball and start showing your feet the attention (and gratitude!) they deserve.
- Place the ball under your arch.
- Press your foot in the ball and move in all directions.
- Pay special attention to any sore spots, including the balls and heels of your feet.
We know that’s a lot of information, but our bodies have a lot going on. It’s easy to forget about some of the muscle groups that get us through every day and instead focus on the usual suspects. But try to give each part of your body some love. What else can we say other than keep on rollin’ along!
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