I am happy to admit to being in a love-hate relationship with my roller. We’ve been together almost as long as I have been married (2008 in case you were wondering) and the roller has been with me when my legs have been in top shape and also when they’ve been in desperate need of relief.
So what is a foam roller?
They generally come in two lengths – 30cm and 80cm and are 14.5cm in diameter. They are a heavy duty foam cylinder. Some have bumps on them, others are smooth.
They’ve been around for ages but have been like a secret device that only runners who need therapy come to know about.
Me and my roller were first introduced when I signed up with Walter Thorburn to coach me for Ironman. The foam roller was one of his go-to pieces of equipment.
When I first saw one I remember thinking “what the heck do I do with that”. And then he promptly demonstrated a number of moves he wanted me to include in my daily activities.
And so me and my foam roller embarked on this journey.
We’ve been together ever since, apart from an 18 month break-up – when I was pregnant I lent her to another runner since she was going to spend a long period in the corner being used as a cat toy.
Why should you get one?
The foam roller is a great tool for lengthening and elongating muscles, but its benefits are especially helpful for runners, who often suffer from tight and fatigued muscles.
Instead of just lengthening the muscle, a foam roller massages muscles intensely, much like a massage from a massage therapist. If you use the foam roller correctly you can stay injury-free.
When you run your muscles are constantly going through stress that causes them to breakdown and then repair.
Over time the connective tissue that surrounds your muscles, called fascia, starts to thicken and shorten to protect the muscle from more damage.
This can lead to trigger points where the fascia and fibres contract so much that they manifest as sore spots. Fascia can impact your movement – it can lead to gait change, restricted movement and possible injury.
How does foam rolling help?
Foam rolling is the application of pressure to eliminate scar-tissue and soft-tissue adhesion by freeing up your fascia. You can release those sore spots and once released all the problems associated with that tight fascia disappear.
The idea is to stretch and loosen the fascia so that everything can move more freely. This results in decreased muscle and joint pain, increased circulation and improved mobility, balance and gait for peak performance.
So foam rolling makes you a better athlete.
How do you use it?
If you have an area of pain do not subject this directly to foam rolling as you could create more inflammation and tension in the area.
Where you feel pain might not be the source of injury (as I have discovered in the past).
So you should slowly foam roll your way away from the pain centre to the connecting muscles.
Once you hit the attachment areas, work those thoroughly. Then proceed back to the area of pain and work gently at first.
If you’ve ever had deep tissue massage you might recall how your therapist will revisit the troublesome spot several times and each time the pain lessening.
It hurts so I want to get it over with quickly
Foam rolling is a bit like training for a marathon. There are some sessions that hurt but you have to do them well to make it worth your while.
Foam rolling requires you to take your time – no matter how deep inside the hurtbox you are.
The idea is to release fascia and relax your muscle, you can’t just do it quickly to check the box. You have to be slow and deliberate in your movements.
When you find a sensitive area slowly go back and forth over that spot. Start with applying only half of your body weight and use your hands or feet to adjust that pressure until you can withstand your full body weight.
The maximum amount of time you should spend on any one area is 20 seconds or so. After this, you only risk irritating the spot more than you’re helping it.
If it’s particularly troublesome you can always return to that area later on when your muscles have had a chance to relax (when I had my sore calf I would roll three or four times a day).
If you want to watch a video that shows the exercises I think this is a good one. He moves a little bit too quickly but otherwise excellent exercises.
You can get foam rollers from pilates and yoga studios, as well as sports shops.