Foam rolling can provide similar benefits as deep-tissue massage and is a damn site cheaper. With the following knowledge you can manage your own body and “prehab” (a Joe-ism; to prevent the need for rehab) increasing flexibility and decreasing muscle tension, preventing injury and improving performance.
Firstly What Causes Stiffness, Tightness Or Even Pain In A Muscle?
Okay, here is a very simplified version –
Muscle fibres are surrounded by a sheath, called the fascia, that holds them all together.
The fibres themselves are designed to glide over one another smoothly. When a muscle is stressed, collagen is released to repair the stress.
This acts like glue and is a very effective remedy except it glues everything around the point of stress. This can be the layers of muscle fibres to each other forming knots of scar tissue.
As well as limited mobility, scar tissue has no blood supply to it, so the more scar tissue in a muscle the less blood getting to the muscle.
These knots are also known as adhesions. As well as within the muscle itself, the muscle can become adhered to the fascia, also restricting mobility.
The other widely used term for muscle pain is trigger points or knots, these are acute muscle contractions usually about the size of a pea.
There are several contradictory papers published on the exact cause of trigger points but the general consensus is they are trauma or muscle imbalance related and can be relieved by deep tissue work (foam rolling or manual manipulation, massage) and corrective exercise, structural balance.
When an individual muscle become dysfunctional due to the formation of scar tissue, trigger points, or adhesions, the entire movement system will be affected. Hence the muscles ability to produce, reduce, and stabilize force effectively is compromised.
For the runner this means decreased performance, increased instability of the joints, increased fatigue in other muscles, imbalance due to over compensation and increased risk of injury.
Why Foam Roll?
Foam rolling, like all tissue work, has been shown to lengthen the muscle and break down the scar tissue and adhesions, allowing more mobility and improved range of motion. It also stimulates blood flow to the muscle and stimulates the nervous system.
Stretching Vs Foam Rolling
Stretching is very very important but it needs to be done correctly and at the right time.
Just think about it – if we do have adhesions and scar tissue (which we all have!) , scar tissue is not very stretchy, so if we have a knot of scar tissue in a muscle or if the muscle is adhered to the surrounding fascia, we will stretch the free fibres but NOT the knot/adhesion itself.
Now think of the knot as a lump of welding on a pipe; when you bend it repeatedly the lump of solder will stay strong but the area around it will become weaker.
The same can happen in the muscle ie we often tear close to a pre-existing knot, the body then fixes it with more scar tissue and we set ourselves up for another tear close by to that point as well and so it goes on… unless we break down the scar tissue (foam rolling).
Stretching is still very important but first release the muscle and breakdown the scar tissue, then stretch to increase your range of motion. Stretch for 10-15 seconds per side and repeat each stretch 2 or 3 times.
Before Or After Exercise Or When Do I Do What?
Before exercise is one of the best times to foam roll. You are bringing blood flow and oxygen to the muscles, you are breaking down some adhesion’s and firing up the nervous system in relation to the muscles.
Another benefit is that getting your muscles sitting in a better state/position allows a smoother range of motion, and in turn this helps you lay down more efficient and effective motor patterns.
Then start your session with specific mobility and dynamic movement drills, and repeated short 10-15 second stretches, to get your body fully fired up and increase range of motion.
I try to get my clients to roll everyday whether they have an exercise session or not. The difference, when combined with stretching for their flexibility, is amazing over a relatively short period of time.
Most of my clients have their own rollers (they are cheap as chips) so that they can roll at home and don’t have to necessarily come to the gym for their flexibility sessions and also so they can have a quick roll before they go for a run or a walk.
So How Do I Roll?
Place your body on the roller and slowly roll up and down (for about 10-15 seconds) along the muscle group you are targeting. If you find a particularly tight area, pause on that spot. Putting pressure on a tight area can help release the tissue.
Gluteal Muscles, Piriformis
Lie on your right side with the foam roller under your right gluteal area and your right leg extended straight out.
Bend your left knee and rest your left foot behind your right. Place both hands on the floor for support. Roll your right gluteal muscles, then repeat on the other side.
Lie on your right side with the foam roller just below your hip bone. Extend your right leg straight out, and bend your left leg and place it in front of your right leg.
Place your right hand on the floor for balance, and roll along your outer thigh from the below your hip bone to just above your knee. Repeat on the other side.
Lie face down with the foam roller under your right thigh. Put your forearms on the ground. Keep your left foot off the ground by stacking your feet on top of each other (toe of left foot on heel of right foot).
Supporting your body weight with your forearms, roll up and down from the bottom of the hip to the top of your knee. Repeat on the other side.
Sit with the roller under your right thigh. Place the palms of your hands on the ground (fingers pointing toward your body). Keep your left foot off the ground by stacking your feet on top of each other (heel of left foot on toe of right foot).
Supporting your body weight with your hands, roll up and down from the bottom of your hip bone to the top of your knees. Repeat on the other side.
Sit with the roller under your right calf. Place the palms of your hands on the ground (fingers pointing toward your body). Keep your left foot off the ground by stacking your feet on top of each other (heel of left foot on toe of right foot).
Supporting your body weight on your hands, roll up and down from the along your calf. Repeat on the other side.
Lie on your back with the roller horizontal to your shoulder blades. Place your hands beneath your head. Lift your backside off the floor and roll along the upper part of your back from the top of your shoulder blades to the bottom.
This should NOT be painful. DO NOT go to far down the back, to the bottom of the shoulder blades should suffice.
What Kind Of Roller Shall I Buy?
The firmer the better. They usually come in two types EVA or EPP. The EVA rollers are the professional grade that you would find in a physiotherapist’s and are the type I’d recommend.
If you wish to travel with your roller get the shorter versions, generally I use a short 15cm diameter EVA roller.
If you have some really niggly areas and are used to either deep tissue massage or foam rolling get a Thera-roller, these ridged rollers are fantastic, the ridges mean they attack problem areas more aggressively.
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