What is a foam roller?
A foam roller is simply a cylindrical piece of dense foam. You may have seen athletes or other gym goers use them but are still not quite sure what it does or why you should use one. They come in several designs - for example, some rollers come studded with small spikes or notches meant to mimic the thumbs of a massage therapist. After some practice and experience, a piece of PVC pipe can even be used for problem spots!
We foam roll in order to facilitate a specific type of stretching called self myo-facial release, which targets deep fascia. The fascia system is a network of fibrous tissue that surrounds muscles, nerves, and blood vessels. Imagine the white inner skin of an orange when peeled. It helps give the flesh its shape and separates the constituent parts. Your own fascia operates in a similar way within your body. Unfortunately, this system is often the root of movement dysfunction. With over or under-use, parts of the body become weak, stiff, and out of balance. The fascia system responds by solidifying those anatomical positions. Over time, this can place inappropriate stresses on muscle, bone, and connective tissue - raising the risk of injury during sports or exercise.
Using a Foam Roller to Prevent Injury
In order to return balance and flexibility to these areas, we must dissipate the tension and stiffness that manifest as "knots" or trigger points in the muscle. Static stretching is commonly used to alleviate pain and prepare for exercise, but foam rolling gets to the deeper issue. Pick a large muscle group (such as quads, glutes, upper back, etc.) and apply pressure with the roller. Roll over the length of the muscle 3-5 times, taking note of any "hot spots" or areas of pain and excess pressure - these are the specific spots we want to focus on. Proceed to hold the roller on these points for 30-90 seconds. This will likely be uncomfortable, but try to relax as much as possible and breath deeply until the discomfort dissipates.
With regular practice, you will find the areas that need the most attention. These may include muscle groups that you have never actually had problems with, but get tight as a result of other injuries and movement compensations. Develop the habit of using this technique daily, or at least before and after workouts.
Performing myo-fascial release before sporting events or intense workouts is a great general warmup but more importantly, it helps return proper range of motion to the joints that are susceptible to injury. Foam rolling the muscles associate with the legs, hips, and upper back offer the same benefit. Rolling those areas daily, before and after work for example, will send the consistent messages that your body needs in order to maintain, or return to, proper alignment. Indeed, it is misalignment in some degree that is at the root of many pain and injury issues.
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