Last month we sent out a vote in our newsletter for topics, and the resounding response was ‘how to foam roll!’.
Thanks to everyone who sent in their questions via email, on twitter, or on facebook.
Here it is – our ultimate guide to foam rolling. It’s a long post, so pull it up on your next elliptical training session or curl up with a nice cuppa and enjoy!
If you’ve ever googled foam rolling, you’ve probably seen lots of videos where people roll up and down like a crazy person on their ITBs and quads, pretending that it doesn’t hurt like a *%&!$ (put your own word here).
As a result, you’ll now find a variety of articles talking about how bad for you foam rolling is, and how ineffective. And to some extent, I agree – if you roll up and down and ignore your muscles screaming at you to stop, unsurprisingly, it isn’t very good for you.
Before we continue, just a (very important) side note here – foam rolling is a great way to release tight muscles. However, if any part of your body is developing an excess of tension, it’s often because there’s an imbalance it’s compensating for. Prime example: ITBs/vastus lateralis often tighten up when glutes are underactive.
If you’re releasing tight muscles that are compensating for an imbalance somewhere else WITHOUT getting someone to check your mechanics (whether that’s a physio, or sports therapist, or a personal trainer or sports massage therapist with the right qualifications/knowledge), you could end up with an injury because you’re not addressing the underlying issue. So please, use this post to help you loosen up your legs, but make sure you’re also addressing other imbalances with additional strength or stretching work as needed.
Foam Rolling – A Story
One of the best ways to illustrate how bad (and good) foam rolling can be is to tell you the story of one of our favourite clients (some details have been changed, and a few exclamation marks may have been added for dramatic effect).
This guy, we’ll call him Sam, is very active. He cycles a lot, runs a lot, and works at a desk. Unsurprisingly, his common complaint is tight quads and ITBs. As his training intensified, it was harder for me to keep up with tension he developed at his monthly maintenance session.
He could feel it too – his legs felt heavier and sorer after each training session – not good when you’ve got a 100-mile cycling event coming up.
‘Hey Sam, why not try foam rolling?’ I suggested.
Like the fantastic client he is, he went out, bought a foam roller, googled a few YouTube videos, and dutifully rolled up and down his ITBs and quads after each training session.
What do you think happened the next time I saw him?
His legs were UNBELIEVABLY… tight.
Yep, that’s right, hard as a rock. Worse than they’d been before, possibly ever.
‘What have you done?!?’ I asked.
‘I foam rolled like you told me to!’ he exclaimed.
‘Like a maniac?’ I said (yes, I actually said that).
‘Okay, let me tell you how you should be doing it, and we’ll try it again this month.’ And I proceeded to tell him what I’m about to tell you now…
#1 Foam Roll with Medium to Light Pressure
When you foam roll, aim for a 3 or a 4 out of 10 (with 10 being painful and 1 being not painful) on the pain scale with the pressure you apply – discomfort, not pain. When you apply a load of pressure and create a pain response, your muscle will often just tense up and wait.
If it’s only a little pressure, like a light pain, your body will relax when it realises it’s nothing too serious and that the discomfort will decrease as it relaxes (this is not a technical description of what actually happens – think of it as an analogy). That’s how you get a nice muscle release from foam rolling.
Too often, people think that if it’s painful it must be good, and try to push through the pain or push harder to get to the other side. When you do that in the context of stretching or foam rolling, your body just puts its head down, tenses up, and waits for it to be over. (Which is why sometimes stretching can make your muscles tighter than they were before, but that’s for another post).
If you’ve ever had a massage with us, you know the difference the right amount of pressure can make – too much, and your muscles sit there, tensing, until it stops, too little and you get no change. Get just the right amount of pressure, and the tight muscle releases in response to the stimulus.
That’s what you’re going for here.
The reason it should be 3 or 4 for you (whereas in a massage we’ll go for somewhere between 6 and 8) is because we massage therapists have more control over the quality of the pressure with our hands, that you can’t get so much with a foam roller.
How do you know if you’ve got the right amount of pressure?
I know sometimes assessing numbers can be hard. So here are two ways to check if you’ve got the right amount of pressure:
Way One: Do a body check.
Take a few deep breaths and check to see if you’re tensing anywhere – hands, feet, butt, holding your breath. Any tensing-up that’s happening elsewhere in the body is a sure sign that it’s too much pressure for your muscle to relax into.
Way Two: Count to ten.
By the time you get to ten (think ‘Mississippi’s’) the feeling of discomfort should start to decrease. As that happens, you can ‘follow it in’ and get back to a 3 or 4, and let it release a bit more. Rinse and repeat.
#2 Foam Roll Slowly
Unfortunately (possibly having something to do with the name?), people think when they foam roll they should roll up and down very quickly.
What you should actually do is slowly roll your leg down over the roller until you find one particularly bothersome spot – either where you usually feel pain when you’re training, or a spot that feels tender on the roller. Then just sit on it (again, with that 3 or 4 out of 10 pain scale).
To draw another parallel with massage, you probably notice that when we’re trying to change the muscle, we go really slowly, or stop, and do long-hold techniques on specific areas of tension. This way we (the massage therapists at LSM) can get a much bigger difference going slowly and working with the muscles, than if we go too fast. Therefore, when you go slowly with the foam roller you’ll get a bigger difference than when you’re going quickly.
#3 Foam Roll for a Minute or Two
One of the questions that was asked about foam rolling (thanks, Michael!) is how long you should do it for.
This is a tough one. Ideally, allowing a few minutes to work on the major muscle groups you’ve used is the best way forward. That said, even just a minute or two can provide some benefit, so don’t apply an ‘all or nothing’ approach.
A good example of this is me, a few weeks ago – while doing intervals on the cross-trainer my knee started bothering me. I only had a few minutes when I got home before I had to get on with my life, but I knew my knee needed some attention. I pulled out the foam roller, found the one tightest spot on my left quadriceps, and did a single long-hold for about 30-45 seconds. When I got up, my knee felt LOADS better.
Yes, doing a more thorough job on my thigh would have been better, but that was the time that I had. Try to do one to two minutes on a few different spots in each muscle, but if you only have a few seconds, do the worst thing then, and do more later.
What is Too Long?
On the other end of the spectrum, what is too long? Could you roll for an hour and keep going if you wanted?
I’m assuming you have better things to do and wouldn’t actually ever foam roll for that long. That said, I understand it’s nice to know what the parameters are.
A good rule of thumb for duration is try to get a nice release out of about one to three particularly tight areas per muscle, and then move on. This will usually take anywhere from 90 seconds to 4 minutes per large muscle group (ITB, quads, hamstrings, adductors, calves, back of the hips). This is where learning to listen to your body is particularly important – if it feels overworked or abused (or, as one of my clients said, ‘shredded’), you should stop. It is possible to overwork muscles, and more isn’t always better.
When You Have Limited Time, Choose Wisely
An important point on the time thing – try and work on a muscle pair if you can’t do everything.
Say your hamstrings are bothering you, do your quadriceps AND your hamstrings (and ideally stretch your hip flexors – just sayin’). ITBs are always a good one as they’re really hard to stretch (probably in conjunction with some glute med exercises, though). We are here to help, so if you’d like to know what your priorities for your body should be, just ask us when you’re at your next session.
#4 Foam Roll from the Bottom Up
With foam rolling, if you do it the way we’ve described, you won’t be going up and down and up and down and up and down, because you’ll be finding strategic spots and working on those.
With direction, start away from the hips/torso and work your way up. For example, if you’re foam rolling your quadriceps (the front thigh muscles), start just above the knee and roll up slowly until you find that first place you want to relax into. It’s also a good idea to lift yourself up and off the roller and rearrange to get the best angle on whichever knot or tension you’re targeting in each position.
#5 When to Foam Roll
The absolute best time to use a foam roller (or to stretch) is right after you’ve been training/exercising.
Your muscles will be warm and most responsive to the pressure, and foam rolling done correctly appears to have a similar effect as massage when it comes to post-workout soreness.
You can STILL get some benefit, though, if you foam roll other times of the day.
My favourite second-choice suggestions are either in front of the TV (you can literally just lay there) or before bed. You won’t be as warm and therefore will need to go more slowly and apply less pressure. If you follow the pain scale guideline I outlined above for foam rolling, you’ll automatically be adapting to your less-pliable muscle state anyway.
If you’re planning on making foam rolling part of your bedtime routine, plan to do just one group a night, so instead of spending 20 minutes foam rolling every night, spend five, doing a great job on, say, your quads, and then move on to something else the next night. Nobody wants to spend their whole life stretching (well, except maybe yoga teachers).
Would you like some ideas for a nightly foam-rolling or stretching routine? If yes, let me know via any of the usual channels (comments, facebook, twitter, email) and we can schedule that for a future post.
# 6 Which Foam Roller (or other tool) to Buy
There’s a lot of choice in foam rolling now. What’s the best to use? The plain, white, flat foam rollers, or the fancy grid kind? And how do I get enough pressure for my calves, or get into my piriformis?
As far as plain or fancy, in my personal opinion it seems about the same. Some of my clients really like having all the nobbly bits, some people find them too painful. Most gyms have a few different kinds, so try them and see what works for you.
One factor to consider is your own build – if you’re quite heavy, a softer roller will be better for you as your body weight will create a lot of pressure. If you’re a slighter build or much lighter, you’ll probably need a firmer roller to get the same effect, as your body weight might not put much pressure on your muscles.
The thing about foam rolling, is that a foam roller can’t do everything you’d need it to when it comes to self-myofascial-release, so it’s a good idea to at least have a tennis ball or a spiky massage ball handy.
Tennis balls are great for calves and spiky balls for specific parts in the hamstring and the hips (like the piriformis). You may need to try a few different positions to keep the pain scale down (smaller tools can mean more pressure).
#7 When Not to Foam Roll
As with everything, there are times when foam rolling is contraindicated (as in, you shouldn’t do it).
This should be common sense, but in case it’s not, don’t foam roll over an injured muscle. This includes sprains/tears and any time you signs of inflammation (which are swelling, heat, redness and tenderness of the muscle to the touch). If you’re not sure if your tender because the muscle’s tight or because it’s an injury, get it checked before you foam roll.
Some studies have looked at foam rolling as effective for pre-exercise preparation. From what I can tell, foam rolling has a similar effect on muscles to stretching. Since most accepted practice is not to stretch before training, I generally advise my clients not to foam roll before they train either. I understand there is some preliminary evidence that it can be beneficial, but for now I’d save it for after.
And, in case it’s not obvious, don’t roll over joints. When you’re foam rolling, go from one end of the muscle to the other, and stop before you get to the joint.
The End of the Story
And with that, I sent Sam on his way to try this new approach to foam rolling (okay, so maybe that’s a little more detail than I went into, but more or less).
He went away and continued his training and foam rolling for a few weeks until I next saw him for his maintenance massage.
And guess what? (drum roll please)
His legs felt amazing!\
His quads were so much softer, minus one or two deep knots in the vastus lateralis, and his ITBs had significantly improved. He also reported not dreading foam rolling quite so much, now that it wasn’t practically synonymous with a torture session.
Another plus? I was able to spend more time on other things because of how much better those muscle groups were.
Epilogue – What’s This Based on?
If you’re like me, you probably want to know where this approach or technique comes from – is there an evidence base for it? Randomised control trials?
While there have been a handful of studies that examine the efficacy of foam rolling, to my knowledge there’s no widely-accepted ‘foam rolling protocol’, and as you’ll have seen from above, the way many people think to do it seems to be counter-productive.
Everything I’ve outlined above is a combination of my experience of what’s worked with clients, what works on myself, and stems from my knowledge and training about how muscles work in general.
If you foam roll the way I outlined above, you should have good results and it should be extremely difficult to do any damage. That said, with any exercise or stretching you do, you should always listen to your body. If you take the approach outlined above (especially with the low-pain, relaxed & slow attitude), it’s extremely unlikely that you could cause any damage, but everyone is different. This may not suit everyone. If you try it and find it difficult, bring it up at your next appointment and we can walk you through it. If your muscles feel like they’re getting overworked or sore from it, give your muscles a rest.
And if you experience any serious pain, or discomfort you’re not certain is normal, consult a healthcare professional.
Now, equipped with all this new knowledge, you can go and foam roll your way to softer, lighter legs.
While writing this post, a lot of conversations were had and ideas bandied about (lazy pajama foam rolling routine anyone?), so I have a feeling there will probably be some more posts on this subject. Once you’ve had a chance to try out this approach, send us any comments or thoughts or questions, anything else you’d like to see or more detail, and we’ll start working those ideas into future posts.
Foam Rolling Workshop Anyone?
One of those ideas is a live foam-rolling workshop so people can get advice on foam rolling live and in-person.
If you’d be interested in attending a one-hour workshop at some point in the next couple of months, for advice on how to effectively foam roll specific muscles and how you can adjust your technique to be more effective, please let us know in the comments, facebook, twitter, or email. If we have enough interest, we’ll start looking at dates and see if we can’t sort one or two out in the coming weeks.