I’ll be honest — I have a love/hate relationship with foam rolling. Even though my fitness-fanatic brother told me how good it would be for me, I fought the advice every step of the way. I like to think that I recover from my workouts just fine, thank you very much (I don’t), and that foam rolling is just a gimmick (it’s not).
Part of the reason I fought it so much is that I really didn’t understand what it was. Once I
begrudgingly let my brother show me the basics, I had to admit (and this is painful) — he was right.
When I take the time to foam roll after I work out, my muscles recover faster, I don’t feel as sore, and I’m ready to go again a lot more quickly than I would be without foam rolling.
His tutorial was brief, so I decided to enlist the help of local yoga instructor and mobility coach, Clarissa Thompson, for additional tips.
A foam roller, if you haven’t seen one before, is basically a dense cylinder of foam. According to
Thompson, some are denser than others and have raised surfaces that allow them to work deeper into the muscles and fascia. She says you also can incorporate other objects into your routine, such as tennis, lacrosse and massage balls, for self-myofascial release.
If you'd like to try foam rolling but you aren't sure which roller to choose, Thompson has a few recommendations.
The Restore Muscle Therapy Foam Roller, from Gaiam, for instance, "is a great starter roller, as it is smooth and relatively long. It’s also a good one to have around for the days when your muscles are really sensitive,” Thompson says.
She also is a fan of Gaiam's Restore Deep Tissue Foam roller. “This is a great in-between roller, and since the density is moderate, the raised surfaces will still get into the muscles without being too intense when you are just transitioning. This is one of my favorites,” she says.
Another favorite is the GreEco High Density Foam Roller. “This high-density foam roller is no joke and should be used if you have some experience foam rolling. It has ridges in it that will get into the muscles pretty deeply, so work up to this roller as your muscles get used to the feeling of being foam rolled,” Thompson says.
Thompson says foam rolling helps your muscles recover faster and return "to their normal and optimum functionality. Trigger points refer pain elsewhere in the body, so with rolling, you are working to release them.”
She says foam rolling "helps break up knots, or adhesions, in the muscle, resuming normal blood flow and function of the muscle.”
But what exactly do you roll? And how?
“Common injuries and overuses are in the feet and knees, and one remedy is using a foam roller on your calf muscles," she says.
To do so, "place one leg over the roller below the knee and move the roller lengthwise down the muscle a few times. When you find a spot that feels especially tight, you stop and move the leg back and forth and at the same time, rotate through the ankle joint to help break up the fascia. You can also place the opposite leg over the top to apply a little more pressure over the muscle,” she says.
Simply running the roller up and down the muscle won’t accomplish anything. “You need to incorporate the movement back and forth in the opposite direction the muscles run to get
them to loosen up, as well as joint rotation when there is a joint available,” she says.
As a general rule of thumb, you’ll want to roll out each muscle group anywhere from 30 seconds to 2 minutes. For people who exercise four to 7 times each week, Thompson suggest foam rolling at least three times per week. For those who work out one to three times per week, aim to roll out at least once or twice each week.
In either case, it would be ideal to roll out a bit before and after each workout.
Even if you don’t work out, you can still benefit from foam rolling, and you don’t necessarily have to invest in a foam roller to get the benefits.
“If you work at a job where you sit or stand all day, you could start incorporating foam rolling and using a tennis or lacrosse ball as part of your daily routine when you get home from work. Or, keep a tennis ball/lacrosse ball in your desk drawer and use it during your day to release tension in your neck, shoulders and other areas of your body. For example, using a lacrosse ball in your upper glutes, just below your sacrum, can help alleviate low back and knee pain,” she says.
Thompson, who leads a very active lifestyle, practices what she preaches. She says she and her husband, Wade Ellett, got a foam roller after he joined Plan For Adventure, a fitness group in Moline. She says she started experimenting with the rolling techniques and realized how beneficial it was for her body, personal practice and fitness goals.
She says she "rolls out" most nights and some days before work outs, too, depending on how sore she is.
"My typical routine is calves, hamstrings, quads and neck with the foam roller. Glutes, traps, shoulders and upper back with a lacrosse ball and yoga wheel for my whole back,” she says.
“As I incorporated foam rolling and other props into my routine, I noticed that my yoga practice got better, my muscles were more responsive and felt stronger while being more flexible. I was able to push myself further than I had before, but without hurting my body."