crop woman massaging neck with balls by leaning on wall
Exercises,  Mobility,  Stretching

A Beginner’s Guide to Foam Rolling

If you belonged to a gym in the last 10 years, you’ve probably seen foam rollers lying around the stretching area—long, cylindrical tubes, usually in blue, black or white.   Initially, foam rollers struck me as mysterious and slightly frightening objects.  I observed their users rolling uncomfortably about, at times wincing with discomfort.  Giving the tool some side eye, I’d move on with my runners lunge or butterfly stretch.

I came to reconsider foam rollers when my husband and I took up running again during the pandemic.  After taking our 347th walk around Brussels, running seemed a nice change of pace (literally).  We signed up for a virtual race called the COVID Cup (whose motto is “Running together, alone”) and decided to give our old hobby some new legs. 

Neither of us has run regularly for several years, and we both felt pretty sore after every run despite stretching regularly.  My husband has always suffered from terrible shin splints.  Being the budding fitness blogger that I am (or hope to become), I searched in earnest for tips to make the adjustment into running easier.   You guessed it—foam rolling topped the search feed. 

I am now a convert and the proud owner of not just one but two foam rollers, a stick version and the more traditional tube version.  Here’s what I learned in the process of becoming a roller.

What is a foam roller, and why do I want one?

The traditional foam roller is a lightweight tube made a pressed foam.  It’s used to create “myofascial release,” a process that “makes muscles more receptive to stretching and moving.”  Here’s a picture of a typical foam roller. 

If you’ve ever had those little lumps of tension in your muscles, colloquially called “knots”, you’re referring to the fascia.  Fascia are the connective tissues that surround the muscle and can stiffen to form knots.  Foam rolling helps to break down these adhesions, similar to a deep tissue massage

Foam rollers come in various shapes, sizes, and degrees of firmness.  The cylindrical tube-style of foam rollers is usually about 6 inches in diameter (approx. 15 cm) and 12-36 inches long (approx. 30-90 cm).  The cost ranges from about $10-30 (approx. €8-25).  But rollers come in other styles as well, including stick rollers and roller balls.  (We’ll talk in more detail about the types of rollers later in this article.)  Given the more affordable price point of rollers, experts recommend investing in one that has “high-density expanded polypropylene” so the roller holds its shape and firmness. 

When should I use a foam roller?

Foam rollers are most often used to increase flexibility, enhance performance, and accelerate recovery from exercise.   They stimulate blood flow to the area of use and can reduce muscle soreness. 

Combined with a warm up, foam rollers are useful before a workout to decrease myofascial restrictions and increase blood flow.  Yoga practitioners use rollers to improve flexibility during yoga sessions.  It’s important to perform a warm up before rolling. Rolling completely cold muscles could cause injury or damage muscle tissue, especially if done too aggressively. 

Athletes like to use rollers to enhance their performance.  Research suggests that static stretching before a workout reduces muscle endurance and strength.  Instead, athletes use rollers to create the benefits of loosening the muscle while maintaining muscle performance.  For example, weight lifters might roll their hip flexors, quadriceps, and glute muscles before doing squats.

My favorite way to use rollers is after a workout for recovery.  Fitness experts find that rollers can substantially reduce soreness and help muscles recover more quickly.  Rolling also prevents new myofascial knots from forming and helps flush damaged tissue. 

I’ve even used my foam roller during the work day as a break from endless conference calls and sitting at my desk, foam rolling my shoulders or using a stick roller on my neck.  I find that rolling helps with my posture and reminds me to stop slumping over my desk. 

Which type foam roller should I choose?

Traditional foam rollers come in different levels of firmness, from soft, which is good for beginners, to firm, for more advanced users.   There are plenty of fashionable colors to choose from—just try to find the level of firmness that’s right for you before buying. 

In addition to the traditional style, rollers come in a number of shapes, sizes, and materials.  Some rollers may have bumps or ridges to help with myofascial release.  Others have plastic tubing inside the roller for a stiffer feel.   Some rollers even vibrate

If you’re a beginner, I suggest choosing a smooth roller that’s a bit softer and will give you even pressure across the target muscle.  If you want a more targeted rolling session similar to a deep tissue massage, try the knobby version.  I love deep tissue massages, so I chose the TriggerPoint GRID foam roller, which has positive reviews overall. 

In addition to the tube style, you can opt for a stick roller, also called a massage stick.  The stick roller has become quite a handy tool in my household.  My husband uses it to roll his shins and calves before and after running.  I love using the stick roller to break up all of the knots in my neck and shoulders.  My stick roller also is made by TriggerPoint, the STK Handheld Massage Stick.

Here’s a photo of both our rollers. 

Massage balls are small rubber or foam balls designed to allow much more targeted myofascial release.  There’s no need to invest in a specialized ball unless you really geek out on rolling—using a tennis ball or lacrosse ball should work fine.  I haven’t graduated to using a massage ball yet.  From what I’ve read, using a ball is great for targeting specific areas, but it’s pretty intense as compared to the larger foam rollers or massage sticks.

Feeling overwhelmed?  Here’s a handy video that walks through your options. 

Taz Shirota, Foam Rollers: Differences and What They Do (5 minutes)

How do I use this thing?

A personal trainer or physical therapist can easily show you how to use foam rollers, if you have access to one.  It takes a few times to get used to it, but the results are worth it. 

From my experience, the key is to start with a pressure that is tolerable enough to hold for 20-30 seconds or so.  You can work up to longer periods of time as you get used to it.  Find a muscle group that is sore or tender, and roll back and forth slowly for 20-30 seconds. Then move onto the next muscle group. 

Here’s a handy video that walks you through a complete foam rolling routine by Shona Vertue, who I featured on Day 6 of the Simple Fitness 30-Day Challenge.

Shona Vertue, How to Foam Roll, Full Sequence (14 minutes)

Here’s another video from Dr. Jo, a quirky physical therapist known for her informative and sometimes silly demonstration videos.  On her website and YouTube channel, Dr. Jo focuses on demonstrating good form for physical therapy exercises and stretches that address common injuries and problems. In this video, she demonstrates how to use a stick roller. 

AskDoctor Jo, Using a Roller Stick to Relieve Tight or Sore Muscles (6 minutes)

While foam rolling may feel uncomfortable, it shouldn’t be excruciating.  If it is, then stop.  With my larger foam roller, I like to roll my shoulders, lats, hips, quadriceps, and hamstrings—in other words, the larger muscle areas.  I use my stick roller on smaller muscle groups, such as my shoulders, neck, shins, and calves. 

Experts have mixed views on whether or not to roll the iliotibial (IT) band area.  Many advise against rolling the IT band.  The IT band is not a muscle itself, but rather a band of connective tissue that runs along the outside of your leg.  Research suggests that it’s better to roll your hips, glutes, and hamstrings to relieve tightness in the IT band, not the IT band itself.  I chose the Shona Vertue video because she expressly avoids the IT band.  Since I’m somewhat new to rolling, I opted for a more cautious approach. 

Do not use rollers on bones, joints, injured areas, open wounds, or if you have rheumatoid arthritis, deep vein thrombosis, advanced osteoporosis, or neuropathy that causes pain.  If you want to use a roller for back pain, you should check with your doctor. Some types of back injuries may become worse through rolling. 

If you’ve been reading my blog, then you know that I try to keep my fitness space as simple as possible.  But I happily make room for these two gadgets in my fitness space.  They don’t take up much room, are reasonably priced, and help keep me healthy and injury-free. 

Till next time,

Kim

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