Foam Rolling 101

What is it? Why and how do you do it? Sports doc Jordan Metzl explains why it's so great for your body.

March 13, 2014
foam roller
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In a perfect world, we’d all get deep tissue massages every day and chocolate-dipped doughnuts would be calorie-free and packed with antioxidants. I’m still waiting on those magical doughnuts, but it turns out that daily massages are no longer a perk reserved for the underworked and overpaid. Meet your body's new best friend: foam rolling.

“If you only buy one piece of exercise equipment for the rest of your life, make it a foam roller,” says Jordan D. Metzl, M.D., author of The Exercise Cure and The Athlete’s Book of Home Remedies. “It’s the most convenient, reliable, and inexpensive massage therapist money can buy." The simple Styrofoam cylinders cost around $30 a piece, and it's money well spent when you consider that you're investing in improved flexibility, upgraded mobility, peak muscle performance, and injury prevention and treatment.

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More: 8 Ways to Work Out Without Working Out

How It Works
The brilliance of the foam roller is in its ease of use: You just place the target body part on top of the roller and roll back and forth. This basic movement targets your myofascia -- the mesh-like fibers that form around your muscles in response to damage caused by both working out too much (inflammation, injury) and not working out enough (inactivity). When myofascia get stuck on your muscles, they can cause pain and prevent normal muscle movement.

The good news is that stretching the fascia using a foam roller releases the muscles so that they can work the way they’re supposed to. Case in point: A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that foam rolling the quads increased participants range of motion by as much as 10 degrees.

“You’ll notice immediate changes in your ease of movement, posture, and mobility,” says Metzl. “Without stretching at all, you’ll feel looser and more flexible -- as if you’ve developed a healthier body almost instantaneously.”

Metzl recommends foam rolling three to five times per week after exercising, but you can also do it nightly before bed if you have chronic muscle tightness.

More: The New Rules of Stretching

The One Downside
A foam roller should come with a bit of a warning: “Like a deep massage, foam rolling can be uncomfortable,” says Metzl. As you push your muscle into the foam roller using your body weight, it can feel tender. That just means that you found a spot where the fascia is especially stiff and clumped together. The more you roll it out, the smoother the knots will become (and the less it'll hurt) and the more your mobility will improve.

 

Plus, regular rolling will lead to less pain in the long run. A study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that foam rolling after exercise reduced delayed onset muscle soreness. For the participants who rolled out post workout, muscle soreness peaked 24 hours after exercising, whereas those who didn’t break out the roller saw their pain peak at 48 hours.

Common Trouble Spots
Whether you use foam rolling as pre-workout prep, post-workout recovery, to work out an injury, or just to feel better all over, here are some common trouble spots where the foam roller is a rock star:

Lower Back Pain
Your lower back is super fussy. If the muscles are either too tight or too weak, they can spasm. And of course, sitting at a desk doesn’t help either of these problems. The best solution: do the Lower Back Roll.

Less-obvious causes of lower-back pain also include tight hamstrings, glutes, or hip flexors. Imbalances in these muscle groups can affect your body alignment, forcing your back muscles to overcompensate. And yep, you can roll them out too!

Hip Pain
“A strong butt is the key to a happy life,” says Metzl. Without your glutes to stabilize and properly mobilize your hip joint, you’re opening yourself up to a world of pain. Foam rolling this large muscle group with the Glutes Roll activates the muscles that you (literally) sit on all day, every day. “Fire them up and say good-bye to hip pain,” Metzl promises.

 

Bad Knees
Metzl sees about 20 cases of "runner’s knee" a week in his sports medicine practice. Runners knee happens because the patella, or the kneecap, is subjected to a lot of force when you do high-impact activities like running. Fortunately, this isn’t actually a knee problem. “More likely, muscle imbalances, tightness, or bad conditioning in the quads and hips is the issue," says Metzl. If the quad is imbalanced, it will pull the patella too far in one direction, causing pain. Loosening up with the Quadriceps-and-Hip-Flexors Roll will help correct this imbalance.

More: Prevent 5 Common Running Injuries

The Final Say on Foam Rolling
If you're an active person -- and you should be! -- you'd be wise to roll with the roller. “It will keep the muscles and the surrounding tissues flexible and ready for any activity,” says Metzl.