Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Hurts So Good: Foam Rolling 101

When I first learned about foam rolling about 10 years ago, I initially thought it was odd and useless.  I was working as a personal trainer at a large health club and I remember one of the master trainers raving about it so I figured I would give it a shot.  I laid on the long peace of foam, rolled vigorously back and forth for like 5 seconds and insisted it had no benefit.  Luckily for me and my future client, that master trainer caught me with my terrible foam rolling technique and took some time to show me how to properly use it.  And let me tell you, it changed my life!  Since then, foam rolling has not only become a regular part of my training regimen (just as important to me as a training run or lifting session) but also a staple in our training programs for all of our athletes.  Foam rolling and other forms of SMR (self miofascial release), if done properly, have several great benefits which I will discuss below.  However, people often neglect rolling because they feel as if they have time or do not see immediate benefits from it.  So I will also cover proper technique, key areas to roll and tips for incorporating rolling into your training routine.

Benefits of Rolling
First, let's discuss why we roll.  Our active lifestyle, from running to lifting weights, causes our muscles to tighten up.  These tight areas, or "trigger points," can eventually lead to weak areas which, if neglected, can potentially lead to injury.  Loosening up tight tissue not only alleviates discomfort, but it can also help you become a more efficient athlete with increased range of motion, better form and improved running and economy.  Waiting until you feel significant tightness and pain, however is not the solution and often where people go wrong when it comes to SMR.  Foam rolling is not just for rehabilitation, rather it is a great tool for preventing muscles from getting too tight, which of course will aid in recovery, prevent soreness and, of course, prevent injury.

When to Roll
As I stated above, don't just wait until your sore to roll.  Use roam rolling as a preventative tool as a part of your regular training routine to see the most benefit.  At our gym, we have our athletes roll out before each training session, and even during and after if necessary.  I myself, as a runner and weight lifter, typically start each of my training sessions off with several minutes of foam rolling focusing on key areas.  So to answer the question of "when should you foam roll?" here are a couple of key things to remember:
  1. Rolling can essentially be done daily
  2. Do not wait until you are sore, roll regularly
  3. Roll BEFORE training sessions as a part of your warm up to loosen up tight muscles
  4. If you experience tightness during or after a workout, take a moment to roll that specific area
  5. Rolling does not necessarily have to occur during training, it can be done first thing in the morning or even at night, just make time for it!
Types of Rollers
At our facility, we have several types of tools including regular long rollers, half rollers, "The Stick," and lacrosse balls for our athletes' SMR needs.  I typically suggest to people to first invest in a long roller that can be purchased anywhere from online to running stores and even Target or Marshalls.  You do not have to break the bank buying the latest and greatest products in SMR.  A simple long piece of foam will serve as a great tool to loosen up those tight muscles.  Here is a break down of what we use and for what:
  1. Long Roller: Can be used for most areas, especially larger muscle groups like quads, glutes and adductors.  Long rollers are also great for the back, lats and of course those pesky IT Bands.
  2. Half Roller: Although not necessary if you have the long roller, half rollers can be a little more user friendly for hamstrings and calf muscles.
  3. "The Stick": Is great for zeroing in on tight calf and soleus muscles as well as peroneals.  If you do a good amount of traveling, The Stick is a great investment because of it's size, it can be a great SMR tool for on the go.
  4. Lacrosse Ball: Yes, you can purchase a fancy rolling ball from a running store, but if you can get your hands on a lacrosse ball, there are several areas you can roll with this simple tool.  The neck and shoulder area, certain regions of the hips and the rotator cuff are all areas that a hard lacrosse ball can help loosen up.
  5. Others: If you head into a running store or search around online, you can be overwhelmed with the practically endless types of SMR tools available as well as the claims that each product is "the best in the industry."  My advice when it comes to starting off with foam rolling (and actually when you start off with anything) is to keep it simple and fairly inexpensive.  Invest in one good roller that seems to suit your needs and commit to using it before breaking the bank on all the products on the shelves.
Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Foam Roller
I've discussed the importance of rolling, when to roll and of course what to use.  Now I will cover some key things to remember as you roller in order to get the most out of it.  Like I said above, my first experience with foam rolling was less than impressive, and this was of course I was doing it all wrong.  Many times, I will see people lay on a roller, rapidly roll back and forth for a handful of seconds (pretty much exactly how it went down the first time I tried it), hop up and proceed with their workout or leave the gym thinking they just successfully broke up all that tight tissue.  Sure they have seen pictures in magazines or other people at the gym foam roll the same way, so they think they are doing in right.  And maybe they did get something out of it that way (mostly likely a placebo effect though). In order to feel the full benefits from SMR, one must be a little more methodically with their rolling.  So here are a key things to consider next time you grab your roller, stick or ball:
  1. Start with larger muscle groups like the quads, glutes and hamstrings, then work your way into the smaller ones.
  2. Find the "trigger points," or areas of tightness and discomfort, and focus on breaking up those areas the most.  If you feel nothing over a certain muscles, don't spend too much time there.
  3. Roll directly over the tightest spots, as it becomes less and less tense, begin rolling further away from that area to cover more ground and loosen up more tissue surrounding it.
  4. Take slow deep breaths, letting out long slow exhales as you roll over those extra tight spots that cause you discomfort while rolling.
  5. Spend on average about 20-30 seconds per area, longer for the tighter areas.  This really should take only about 10 minutes of your time, so no excuses on skipping out on it!
What to Roll
Here are the key areas we focus on rolling with our athletes:

Glutes: Sit on top of foam roller.  Rest ankle on top of thigh.  Place same arm behind body.  Lean toward the bent leg side and roll forward to back over glute.

IT Band: Lay sideways with outer thigh (IT Band) on top of roller.  Place bottom forearm on grown beneath shoulder and top hand down for support.  Cross top leg over bottom placing foot on ground.  Roll body forward to back. 

Quads: Lay upper thighs on top of the roller with forearms rested on the floor for support.  Roll from top to bottom of thighs and back up.

Hamstrings: Place foam roller underneath one leg.  Use your arms to help hold your hips off the floor.  Roll up and down over hamstrings.

Adductors: Place roller parallel to body.  With forearms underneath shoulders for support, place inner thigh on top of the roller with knee bent.  Roll from upper thigh down towards the knee and back up.

Lower Back: Place foam roller underneath your low back.  Place hands behind head to support neck.  Lift hips off floor and roll up and down low back.

Upper Back: Lay your shoulder blades on top of foam roller.  Cross your arms across your chest.  Lift your hips off floor.  Roll foam roller up and down your upper back.

Lats: Place roller underneath upper lats, roll up and down along lats.  Then, laying on roller, roll chest front to back.

Calves: Place The Stick on top of the calf muscle below knee, roll Stick down and up the calf.

Peroneals: Place The Stick on outside of the lower leg, above ankle.  Roll Stick up and down the lateral leg.

For more information on foam rolling, recovery and training, contact Coach Christina today at 407-960-4705.


  1. Such great information! I actually just took a foam rolling 'how to' course a few weeks ago and they went over a lot of the same information. Going to share this with my running group :)

  2. I have TWO ROLLERS.
    I havent rolled in ages.
    and I can feel it as well <3 I need to get back to it.