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They see me rollin'! What is foam rolling and should I be doing it as part of my workout?

Physio and personal trainer Sarah Cremen begins her new column with a look at the importance of recovery.

Image: Shutterstock/Sebastian Gauert

A TOOL THAT was once reserved for serious athletes only, foam rollers have hit the mainstream in the last few years.

Foam rollers alone come in different shapes, densities, length and it can all become a bit confusing. In any given gym you will see folks foam rolling their way from head to toe at warp speed, working away with no real purpose or strategy.

It begs the question – what are we really trying to affect and how?

What is it?

Foam rolling is a form of self-myofascial release (SMFR) or self-massage that involves the application of pressure to specific points on your body.

I normally recommend clients to use foam rolling before a workout as tissue prep or passively after, for recovery purposes.

If performance enhancement is the end goal, using the foam roller will aid in tissue recovery and restoration of normal tissue function and pain-free movement.

So, how does it differ from stretching?

Stretching is great, I love stretching, but it’s not always the answer. Why? The best analogy is one I always use with new clients; imagine a bungee cord with a knot tied in it.

Now imagine pulling/stretching the cord at each end; it creates tension either side of the knot, but the knot remains.

These “knots” or trigger points are simply a result of life; training, flexibility, posture, movement patters, hydration, nutrition, stress and rest are all contributing factors.

The deep compression and subsequent release of SMFR allows normal blood flow to return to the tissues and for the restoration of healthy, elastic tissues.

However, the same rules apply as with stretching; it should be uncomfortable but not unbearable and you should feel better once it’s over.

How does it work?

In a nutshell, the compression from the foam roller helps to break up adhesion and restore normal neural tone and healthy blood flow.

If you are confused as to what you are actually working on; muscle, fascia or soft tissue in general the answer is; all of the above.

While it primarily targets the fascia and the trigger points that form in the fascia, when you use a foam roller your nerves, muscles and epithelia are getting rolled too — something to bear in mind if you find yourself going down the ‘no pain, no gain’ route.

How to apply it

1. Move slowly

If there is a definite trigger point, sustained pressure of 15-30 seconds (or until you feel pressure dissipate) should be used to assist in rehydration and release of the knot, otherwise a slow, deliberate application is preferable to static pressure.

Fast rolling is relatively ineffective and can result in unnecessary muscle tension and bruising. Remember, it is a thick, fibrous web of tissue so a quick pass over with the roller won’t fix anything!

2. Get specific

Spend your time on the areas that need it. If you’re struggling with certain movements, target the specific areas that relate to those movements.

Don’t be afraid to explore areas you haven’t rolled before; your lats, your biceps, your upper inner thigh. I guarantee you’ll find some new spots to work on.

3. Hold the roller still

Instead, move your body over it. This will help to create the shear force that assists in decreasing the adhesions between the fascial planes. Don’t stay too long in one area though (20-30 seconds) as you run the risk of actually damaging the tissues, increasing inflammation or irritating nerves.

Utilise your body — use your hands and legs for support and to take pressure off as necessary.

4. Avoid rolling directly over an injured area

Constantly working over an injured area can end up creating more inflammation and tension. Instead, foam roll away from the injured area to the connecting tissues and attachment areas.

It’s also a good idea to avoid rolling over bones and joints (use a lacrosse ball/trigger point ball instead to get to areas like your lower back) as it’s painful and pretty ineffective.

So, there you have it. Spend 10 minutes at the start of your workout or on a rest day rolling with intention and avoid your fascia going from cobwebs to cables too!

Sarah is a personal trainer and Physiotherapist based in Dublin. For more health and fitness advice and tips, you can follow her on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. Alternatively you can visit her website.

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