“Foam rolling is great, we have quickly become best friends” was a recent response from a client when I inquired about his progress with some foam roll exercises that I had recommended.
I can honestly say that I feel the same way. I didn’t feel that way initially mind you – we really had to work through some painful spots, but thankfully we were both willing to keep working at them, and soon enough it was smooth rolling. And that lead to happy running and skiing for me. But after a while the old white foam roller started to feel a little soft. Then one day, my wandering eye got the best of me – I just couldn’t resist that fancy blue foam roller, standing in the corner of the fitness store, so hard and rugged. Who could resist?
And so earlier this year, I brought the new, blue foam roll into the house. I like to think that the old roller understands, but as I finish a delightfully painful hamstring roll to a blissful upper back treatment, I forget entirely about my first foam roll.
Never tried foam rolling? Well then you are in for a treat! Foam rolls (sometimes called foam rollers) are basically short and fat pool noodles. I wonder if they float? Anyhow, as the name implies, they are pieces of foam that you roll on.
In the strength and conditioning community it is sometimes referred to as SMR (self myofascial release), because it is like a mini-massage that you give yourself at home.
Like a massage, it is based on the concept of addressing trigger points in your muscles that can interfere with the muscles ability to relax and lengthen. SMR is nowhere near as good as getting an actual massage from a good massage therapist, but for those of us who do not have muscle tightness and do not have the luxury of daily massage, it’s a great option. Especially for those who consistently have tight muscles.
There are typically three different foam rolls: the white ones are the softest, followed by the black ones and then those saucy blue ones. If you are very, very tight, then I would suggest that you start with a white or black one.
Foam rolling is effective for many different muscle groups, including:
- IT band and TFL
- hip flexors
- back muscles.
There’s a two-page reference up on the Custom Strength website that includes pictures and brief descriptions of foam rolling each of the aforementioned body areas. .
What part of your body should you roll?
I suggest that you try rolling everything once, and then go back for more to the areas where it was a bit painful. Now when I say painful, I mean “effective massage” painful; not “I’m rolling over a bony area and it really hurts” painful. If you can find the time to get 30 seconds of rolling on each “painful” area then that would be fantastic. But if you have lots of trigger points then you may find 30 seconds each takes too much time. In that case I would suggest 5 to 10 extra rolls each.
If you are a runner or any athlete involved in running sports, you will probably find these trigger points your IT bands (the outside of your thigh) and gluteals.
Skier or hockey player? Try the adductors, gluteals and quads.
Spend a lot of time at a desk? Try your thoracic spine area (between the shoulder blades) and your lats (under the armpit).
Some people also find the foam roll works well on the hamstrings, while others find that despite feeling tight there, that they don’t get a lot out of foam rolling them. This is probably because the hamstring muscles are too deep. You might find that you have more success using a tennis ball.
Speaking of tennis balls, they work really well on the bottom of the feet. Gently roll it back and forth along the band of muscle that runs from the heel, along the arch and to the ball of the foot. You can also progress that to a golf ball, although I wouldn’t suggest that initially.
If you find it hard to foam roll your calves – which are probably also tight – try the tennis ball there too.
Best time of day to foam roll? That depends. Some people recommend it at the start of your workout; and others at the end of the workout. Personally I tend to recommend it as “homework” so that clients don’t’ rush through it. It can be done very comfortably on the living room floor while watching TV. One thing to note is that you shouldn’t roll your back first thing in the morning. This is due to your discs being “full” first thing in the morning, as I mentioned in this article about low back pain.
Most fitness stores carry foam rollers for somewhere between $20 and $40. Happy rolling!