Foam Rolling or Self-Myofascial Release (SMR) is an effective way to improve the tone of muscles and break down muscle adhesions.
If you can imagine all your muscles are surrounded by a tyoe of cling film, called fascia. When we exercise, muscle is broken down and small tears are made (in a good way!). This enables our muscles to get bigger and grow.
These little micro tears in the muscle become trapped in the fascia and may benefit from being “smoothed’’ or “rolled out”.
While stretching allows muscles to lengthen, this lengthening can sometimes lead to injury. Foam rolling ensures recovery is speedy and muscle imbalances are corrected by smoothing out these adhesions and hence aid recovery.
Foam rolling as a form of self-myofascial release has been reported to have a number of potentially valuable effects for both athletes and the general population.
One of the proposed benefits of foam rolling before a workout is to DECREASE pain experienced during a workout.
The irony, of course, is that foam rolling itself can be quite painful, at least initially!!
Pain tolerance is certainly a factor when it comes to foam rolling. You don’t start rolling around the iliotibial band with both legs stacked. You start with one leg and progress to two over time as your tolerance increases (and some would say as your soft-tissue extensibility improves).
Many practitioners that use foam rolling pre-training to manipulate muscle tone suggest that you apply just enough pressure to relax the tissue without causing pain. That sounds like good advice, but the reality is that anyone new to foam rolling will feel pain especially if they’re rolling over a “trouble” spot.
Pain can inhibit muscle action and in some cases, that might not be a bad thing. It may help promote muscle balance around a joint if you first inihibit a short, tight, strong muscle and then immediately activate a long, flaccid, weak muscle on the opposite side of the joint. That’s a good way to adjust muscle tone for optimal performance with less risk of injury. In layman’s terms, you soften the “tight” tissue and tighten the “soft” tissue. Don’t just use the foam roller like a bomb to attack every muscle, use it like a sniper to target the right muscles only
On the other hand, too much pressure and too much pain is not a good thing no matter how you look at it. This is one of the issues with deep tissue massage. If it leaves you black and blue the next day, you’ve caused too much trauma to the tissue and now you must contend with the subsequent inflammation. You’ve likely caused more harm than good
Here are some of the most effective foam rolling positions
Body is positioned prone with quadriceps on foam roll. It is very important to maintain proper core control (abdominal drawn-in position & tight gluteals) to prevent low back compensations. Roll from pelvic bone to knee, emphasizing the lateral thigh.
ITB (iliotibial band)
This is particularly good if you are a runner and experience sore knees. Position yourself side lying on foam roll. Bottom leg is raised slightly off floor or just touching depending on pain level. Maintain head in “neutral” with ears aligned with shoulders. Roll just below hip joint down the lateral thigh to the knee.
These get tight and sore from squats and lunges. Roll these to improve ROM (range of movement). Begin position as shown, with foot crossed to opposite knee. Roll on the posterior hip area. Increase the stretch by pulling the knee toward the opposite shoulder.
Place hamstrings on the roll with hips unsupported. Feet are crossed to increase leverage. Roll from knee toward posterior hip while keeping quadriceps tightened.
Lay on side with arm outstretched and foam roll placed in axillary area. Thumb is pointed up to pre-stretch the latissumus dorsi muscle. Movement during this technique is minimal. Also try upper back.
Lie on roller vertically. Place hands either side of head and hold for 1- 3mins. Maintain neutral spine along the roller also. This is great if you sit in front of a computer all day.
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Think of the foam roller as a tool in your toolbox. And just like any tool that serves its purpose for the time being, you can take things too far. If you use a sander to smooth out a section of wood, you don’t want to go too long or use it too often on that spot, or you may have nothing left to sand! Sometimes a sander may not be the best tool to use, just a few strokes with a fine piece of sandpaper may be enough.
When you find that foam rolling is no longer at all painful, stop doing it BEFORE a workout. Any positive effect is lost at that point and it may, in fact, be counterproductive.
Go ahead and use it as a method of restoration away from your workout, but do it as a separate entity later at night, not before you train.
Rachel Law is a personal fitness trainer based in New Malden, Surrey. Qualifications: ActivIQ Level 3 Personal Training; Burrell Education Pregnancy Exercise Prescription; Burrell Education Advanced Pregnancy Wellness Practitioner; Burrell Education Advanced Post Natal Exercise Prescription; Burrell Education 3rd Age Women Optimal Health and Nutrition; Burrell Education Peri Natal Athlete; Burrell Education Pelvic Flow and Freedom; Olympic Weight Lifting; Premier Global Kettlebells; FIE Level Assessment and Mentoring