Foam Rolling is one of the most popular methods athletes use for recovery and preparation. All around the world, from local level right up to Olympic level, athletes can be seen seesawing, rolling and contorting in every which way over a small foam tube, trigger ball or even an old scuffed up lacrosse ball. This is usually paired with the athlete screwing up their face in pain, and counting down the seconds until it’s over. Why do they put themselves through it? What does it even do? This article will help shed some light on why athletes love this pain, what it does for their recovery and performance and how you can implement it in your own training.
Pic 1- NBA Superstar Lebron James using a Foam Roller at team USA practice
Foam rolling is a relative of the massage-therapy family. Massage has been used for centuries1 as a tool to help aid ailments and improve movement and performance. The main benefits of massage are relaxation, decreased muscle tension and increased mobility1. Pressing and prodding into our bodies has been an integral part of our manual therapy methods, and it seems like a natural progression that we substituted our hands for a hard rollable surface. Foam rolling, as we know it today, began to surface in the 1980’s among medical and dancing circles6 , but has origins earlier than that. Here is a video in the 1950’s of women working to slim down their stomachs, waistline and legs and increase flexibility with rolling machines.
- Provide strength and structure (around muscles, tendons and Joints)3
- Maintain relative positions of organs3
- Provide a route for the distribution of vessels and nerves 3
WHERE SHOULD YOU ROLL:
- Foam rolling is typically focussed around the legs, hips and back. Many people choose to roll from the bottom up, so working from the feet, to lower legs, thighs etc., which should be the beginning of your rolling program. A particular focus should be placed on the hips (Hip Flexors, Psoas, Hip Rotators) and the surrounding muscles (Upper Hamstrings, Upper Quadriceps, Gluteal muscles), given their importance for human movement and propensity to get tight. This will include rolling on the front, side and back of the hips as well as inside (adductors) and outside (ITB) the legs and lower back as well. The next step would be to direct the rolling to the upper back, or thoracic spine. This is another critical part of the body where flexibility is imperative. Rolling in and around the shoulder blades(Rhomboids), near the neck (Trapezius) and towards the arm pits (Latissimus Dorsi). The last step would be a self-directed session, to work into any sore or tight spots. There are trigger points around the body (Psoas, Hip Flexors, Calves etc.), which will help release surrounding areas. Experiment with a smaller, more direct force (like a trigger ball), and find what works best for you.
WHEN & HOW LONG SHOULD YOU ROLL:
- Foam Rolling and trigger point therapy has essentially three uses: Warm-ups, recovery and flexibility training. It can be a good way to start your warm up, as you are increasing mobility and flexibility and it can help you physically and mentally prep for the rest of your pre-game activities. I would program it at the start of the warm up, and not just before the game as you should be completing very game specific and high intensity efforts just prior to game time. I would suggest keeping it short and sharp (10 mins total, 20-30 seconds per muscle) as time can be limited pre-game. As part of your recovery, I would lengthen the session out and spend a bit more time on each muscle. Obviously this is dependent on you and how you are feeling post-match, but I would take up to 40-60 seconds per muscle and spend 15- 20 minutes rolling out your body. As part of your flexibility training it is up to you how long you roll for, but in some respects the longer the better. As long as you can handle the pain and are still feeling benefit, I would say keep rolling!
HOW MUCH PRESSURE SHOULD YOU APPLY:
- Your tolerance to pain and your flexibility will largely determine the pressure you will be able to apply. Foam rolling can be very painful, especially in tight and sore spots. If you can handle the pain, and are feeling the muscle relax and gain more mobility, press away. But if you find it too painful, and aren’t seeing any benefit, find a different angle, or a different tool to press into that area. The benefit of foam rolling will be limited if you only press lightly, so try and let as much of your weight down onto the roller as possible. Over time, your mobility and flexibility will increase, which will allow you to feel more pressure and find new positions to roll into.