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This is why we roll: Foam rolling explained

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Foam rolling has been getting a lot of attention lately, and it's no surprise. It's an easily accessible tool with many benefits, such as helping you warm up, stretch, and recover, while also providing a bonus relaxation element.

So let's get rollin’ on everything you need to know about foam rolling and why it's a great addition to your home workouts.

What is foam rolling?

Foam rolling has gained somewhat of a cult following in recent years, but what exactly is it?

Put simply, foam rolling involves using a firm foam roller to roll over specific areas of the body, targeting muscle knots or trigger points to relieve tension. Foam rolling is a popular tool for self-myofascial release (SMR), aimed at alleviating discomfort caused by muscle knots and surrounding fascia.

And foam rolling isn't just about fixing knots—it's a preventative measure too. By targeting trigger points in the fascia and muscles, it helps stave off their formation and accelerates post-workout recovery. Plus, it just feels good at the end of the day or after a long workout.

So, how do you foam roll? Don’t worry, it isn’t complicated. Simply position yourself on the foam roller, apply pressure to tight or restricted areas of muscle, and get rolling! That’s the beauty of foam rolling - it’s super accessible and suitable for everyone, regardless of fitness level.

But we’ll hold off on the foam rolling technique for now. Let's start with the fundamentals: grasping the basics of fascia and how self-myofascial release makes a difference.

What is fascia?

Fascia is a system of connective tissue surrounding our muscles, keeping them in place and enabling proper function and force transmission. When healthy, fascia moves and stretches along with the muscles.

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However, through repeated stresses, overuse, underuse, injuries, or posture imbalances, the elasticity of the fascia can suffer. This may lead to the formation of knots or trigger points, resulting in pain, restricted motion, or even shortening of the muscle tissue. If you’ve ever had a “knot” in your shoulders – then you know exactly what we’re talking about.

What’s more, if not dealt with, increased tension on the skeletal muscle caused by knots or trigger points can impact your joints’ range of motion.

What happens during self-myofascial release?

Now that we've covered what fascia is, let's explore how self-myofascial release works with a foam roller. When you apply prolonged pressure to a trigger point or knot with a foam roller, it signals the body to stretch the muscle fibers and to release built-up tension in the knot. This helps the fascia and muscles relax and realign, which ultimately aids in muscle maintenance and recovery.

Additionally, the friction generated during foam rolling may produce heat, making the muscle tissue in the area more pliable.

Feeling discomfort while using a foam roller is common. However, as you continue to apply pressure, the discomfort should gradually subside.

Why should I use a foam roller?

Myofascial release is an effective method for reducing tension, improving muscle flexibility, and temporarily increasing joint range of motion in the body. Consistently using a foam roller to alleviate knots and trigger points can help ensure joint mobility and enhance movement performance.

And its benefits don’t stop there – foam rolling is a valuable addition to your workout routine, serving as a useful tool for warm-ups or cooldowns. Roll it out to activate your muscles and increase blood flow prior to training. Or get rolling post-workout to cool down and prevent future trigger points by alleviating the stresses induced by your workout.

Bonus points—it's a fantastic way to unwind and relax your body, benefiting both your physical and mental health simultaneously.

Which roller should I use?

One foam roller to conquer all? Not exactly. Although they share the same name, not all foam rollers are created equal, so it's crucial to find the perfect fit for your needs. From soft rollers to increasingly firm ones, there's a wide range of densities to choose from.

If you’re a newbie or dealing with a particularly sensitive knot, go for a softer foam roller to start.

As you become more tolerant of the discomfort or find that the soft foam roller just isn’t doing the trick anymore, you can go for the more dense foam roller.

How do I roll?

Disclaimer: If you experience severe pain while using a foam roll at any point, it is important to visit your doctor or physical therapist for further evaluation.

Start by positioning yourself on the roller and using your body weight to apply pressure to the desired muscle, making sure to avoid rolling directly on joints.

Depending on the muscle you are targeting, you can control the amount of pressure applied by using your arms and legs to have more points of contact with the ground to support more or less of your body weight.

Foam rolling should be performed before dynamic or static stretching and kept at a slow pace. Once you find a trigger point or knot, hold that position for 30-90 seconds or until discomfort decreases.

Post-workout rolling sessions should be at a slow, consistent pace and last anywhere from 60 to 90 seconds per muscle.

Tip: Slightly shifting your weight side to side on a trigger point can help to relieve the tension of the knot.

How often should I be using a foam roller?

Foam rolling is versatile enough to incorporate into both your pre- and post-workout routines, even multiple times per day. Need a mini work break? Get rolling. Post-run recovery? Roll it out. Simply just one of those days? Roll, roll, roll.

And don’t forget recovery days. Trust us, it’s a game-changer and many athletes report immediate relief to tense muscles after a foam-rolling session.

Let’s recap

Foam rolling is a simple, cost-effective tool that offers numerous self-myofascial release benefits. Whether it's relieving pain, improving flexibility, mobility, or simply unwinding with a sense of calm, foam rolling offers multiple advantages to support your fitness journey.

Tack on a 5-minute session after your workout, or incorporate it into your nightly ritual. You'll start reaping the rewards immediately, both physically and mentally. It’s time to roll!

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