Foam Rollers: A lot of hype or a lot of help?
There are a multitude of fitness products on the market claiming to calm, cure and ease all sorts of muscle aches and pains. While ropes, bands, and straps are all common forms of PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation) stretching with the main objective of enhancing range of motion, the foam roller is a tool which focuses on self-myofascial release (i.e. self massage). This form of stretching utilizes the concept of ‘autogenic inhibition’ to improve soft tissue extensibility (i.e. relaxing the muscle and allowing the activation of the antagonist muscle). Foam rollers have been around forever, typically used by athletes and physical therapists. But, is the foam roller a tool you should own and be using?
The foam roller is used by rolling it underneath a specific muscle or muscle group until one finds a ‘tender spot’. Once found, you continue to apply pressure to the tender area for about 30-60 seconds. If one has particularly ‘tight’ muscles, there can be severe trigger points when rolling. The foam roller can be especially effective when used on the: latissimus dorsi, piriformis, adductors, quadriceps, hamstrings, hip flexors, trapezius and rhomboids. Foam rolling should always be done slowly and should never be used to treat injured muscles. The main objective of foam rolling is to provide a cheap means of massage therapy. The other benefits include: increased flexibility, relaxation, and injury prevention.
Now let’s talk about three specific foam roller movements to help relieve muscle tension most common to triathletes.
- Hamstring & Quadriceps Roll: Start with both of your thighs on the roller (at the same time) while bracing face-down from hands and knees position. Slowly and gently roll back and forth from your knees to hips. If desired, to increase the intensity, lift one thigh off the roller thereby doubling the pressure. Flip over, seated on your tush, bracing with your hands beside you and then roll from the base of your glutes all the way to just above the back of your knees. You can increase the pressure by crossing one leg over the other. Do make sure to ‘hold’ any trigger points that surface.
- Latissimus Dorsi & Thoracic Spine Roll: Lie on your side with the foam roll between your ribs and your arm (essentially your arm pit). Then, slowly roll your body forward and backward against the foam roller, as well as laterally (side to side) along it. Switch sides and repeat with the other arm and lat. Next, lie on your back with your knees bent and feet on the ground. Place the foam roller just below your shoulder blade. Use your feet to roll back and forth massaging from the bottom of your shoulder blades to the top of your shoulder. Do your best to relax your neck and head while doing this.
- Calves Roll: Be seated on the ground with your legs straight out in front of you. Place the foam roller underneath your ankles. Brace yourself by placing your hands on the ground beside you as you elevate your hips into the air. Slowly use your hands to push your body forward ‘rolling out’ your calves from ankles to knees. Intensity or pressure can be increased by crossing one leg over the other.
At the end of the day, a foam roller is the LEAST expensive poor man’s massage money can buy. It should never be used as a replacement for stretching, warm-ups or cool-downs, but it will definitely help with muscle soreness and tightness by effectively increasing blood flow and overall flexibility.