Maybe you’ve seen some guy at the gym rolling his legs or his lower back on a piece of circular foam. Maybe you wondered what the heck that guy was doing. It turns out he was doing something that can be especially beneficial.
Foam rolling isn’t new, but it has grown in popularity in recent years. It’s pretty simple to do. Foam rollers are just that: circular pieces of foam about six inches in diameter — think harder versions of the wacky noodles kids play with in pools in the summertime. Using your own body weight, you can roll over your calves, hamstrings, quadriceps, back, and, for those runners out there, your iliotibial band (IT band).
“It’s definitely a big hit with [people who run] road races,” said Joil Bergeron, owner of Next Level Performance in Manchester. “A lot don’t understand the value of it. But once they’ve used it once or twice, they get it.”
At first, it’s probably going to hurt, particularly when targeting your IT band. The rolling simulates a deep tissue massage. The roller helps to alleviate adhesion in the tissue — the process is called myofascial release. Foam rolling helps improve flexibility and prevents injuries. It reduces muscle spasms, which are sort of like mini cramps. Less technically, it helps to work out “knots” in your muscles, Bergeron said.
“It’s kind of like kneading bread dough,” Bergeron said.
Bergeron said if there is a knot in your muscle, stretching alone is like just pulling on both ends of the rope. In contrast, the roller helps work the knot itself out. At first, the roller is probably going to cause some pain. But gradually it helps make muscles healthier and looser. Eventually, rollers will progress to harder foam or even a roller with ridges in it. [This writer knows of at least one person who rolls on a piece of PVC pipe, though that’s probably not recommended.] The roller is great for back ailments, great for legs — for the whole body, Bergeron said.
Someone who experiences foot pain might want to try just rolling the bottom of his foot on a tennis ball or a golf ball.
“You’ll feel relief almost immediately,” Bergeron said.
While Bergeron said foam rolling has been around a long time, it’s only relatively recently that a manufacturer realized it could make money on the rollers. Basic rollers cost about $25 at box stores, while more advanced models cost $40 or $50. You can find them at places like Amazon.com for as little as $8 to $10.
Bergeron suggested working rolling into warm-up and cool-down routines. He still suggested an eight- to 12-minute warm-up beyond the rolling. Rolling after workouts, particularly intense workouts, will help reduce the severity of soreness after the fact, he said.
Rolling isn’t necessarily foolproof, but it’s not technical. A quick Internet search will reveal articles and videos on how to do it. You’ll easily find different techniques for targeting hamstrings, quadriceps, lower back and your IT band.
“This is for anyone who exercises,” Bergeron said. “It’s cheap. It’s easy. It’s simple. … They are extremely beneficial.”
As you roll, when you hit a painful area, slow down and pause over the area for five to 20 seconds until the tension reduces. Roll about 10 to 15 times up and down on a particular area. Don’t go over bones, and don’t roll directly over your spine — it’ll just hurt.
“If you’re finding a lot of spasms, that’s all unhealthy tissue. As soon as five days, you’ll experience real relief,” Bergeron said.
Rolling helps people release the tension and stress in their muscles in as little as five or six minutes per day. You probably won’t even break a sweat while you’re rolling.
“It’s just being aware ... aware of the tension in your body,” Bergeron said. “It’s just a component of a healthy, active lifestyle,” he said.
Bergeron also uses a piece of equipment he called “the stick,” which is a stick fitted with hard plastic beads. People can roll that over their muscles to create the same effect as they get with the foam roller, though Bergerson himself prefers the stick as it provides more control — “It’s a little more intense,” Bergeron said.
So start with the foam roller and move on up to more rigid foam, and then think about the stick. Play around with the roller. Spend more time on areas that hurt.
“It’s just another tool in the toolbox,” Bergeron said.