I know, I know; it’s boring right? Part of why some of my clients don’t stick to foam rolling is because they can’t see an automatic benefit and aren’t sure that they are doing it right.
Fair enough! This article sums up when and how to foam roll so that you know you are getting the most bang for your buck! The Foam Rolling suggested is aimed at injury prevention and muscle relaxation; not treatment.
How and when do I foam roll?
Well that depends on a few things really. If you exercise 5-6 days a week or else to a high degree of difficulty, I would really suggest a ‘Firm Foam Roll’ once a week, preferably the day before your rest day, and a couple of lighter rolls after heavier workouts. The firm roll is also a great suggestion if you feel muscular discomfort related to heavy work or else sedentary work (although sometimes the answer to the latter is also movement). I like to have the foam roller on the couch in the living room. That way when I go to sit down to chill, I am more likely to do a bit of rolling than if I had it tucked away in a cupboard.
When should I not foam roll?
If you are unsure whether or not you have an injury you should avoid rolling the area. Sometimes injuries present as hot or swollen and these are the times that we are best off going to the GP. If you have a blot clotting disorder or are on blood thinners foam rolling can be contraindicated (a definite ‘no no’). If in doubt always seek medical guidance.
Post Event Foam Rolling
So this is the kind of foam roll that is great after a heavy workout, or else throughout the week if you are someone that just has naturally very tight muscles. The Pressure you use is lighter (should not illicit pain) and the movements can be quicker. The length of time for this massage would be shorter and focused on the areas that you used (was it leg day?) and general problem areas (rolling out the calves regularly is something that most of my clients learn to love). In a 2016 study, researchers found that a 7 minute post event massage on Ironman athletes resulted in “statistically significant decreases subjective pain and fatigue scores” when compared to those that rested in a seated position. The thing is, a lot of “post event” massage really is just light strokes of the muscle: easily done at home with a foam roller.
Firm Foam Rolling
I think of Firm Foam Rolling as a free, at-home massage. Self-performed Myofascial release has been shown to have the ability to enhance performance and aid in flexibility in both athletes and the general public . Whilst there are currently many arguments in the field about the how and why, I personally see significant differences in the available range of motion of joints, as well as a subjectively reported reduction in muscular discomfort I from clients in my practice daily from the use of slow and deep strokes. For those clients that go on to use self-massage at home, the effects are similar. Worth noting that during the course of the massage you receive at Anatomy of Movement Clinic PTY LTD, the therapist will give you feedback on which muscles are actually shortened (or tight) and which are already on stretch (taut). A lot of clients will be surprised that the hamstrings they have been stretching and not feeling any benefit from are actually already on stretch and so they would be better off foam rolling and stretching the quads and spending more time strengthening the hamstrings. This is a common presentation in people who love a bit of Les Mills Body Pump TM (no shade, me toooooo!).
Firm Foam Rolling techniques:
1. Myofascial Work: Find a spot that is comfortable for the rest of the body and apply a fairly deep pressure on the muscle as you slowly roll along it. Some therapist believe direction is important, some strongly oppose this. If it feels good and doesn’t cause pain then go for it.
A note on abnormal pain.... getting a foam roller into the quads calves and adductors (inner thighs) is never comfortable, but stabbing pain, joint pain, pins and needles would not be what we are going for. Think more ache rather than pain as what we are going for. If you feel like you need to move away then it is probably too much.
2. Trigger Points: sometimes you will roll along a spot that elicits a dull ache, possibly strong, and some of these times you will feel that pain somewhere else in the limb or even quite far away (some glute trigger points refer pain down to the foot!). You can try to apply pressure to the point of maximum 8/10 pain (pain where you don’t feel the need to escape the pain as mentioned above) and ease off the area when you feel a noticeable decrease in pain. Worth noting that you don’t hold pressure until the dull ache is completely gone as pressing these points will always result in at least minor discomfort. You can add movement to the limb whist compressing also but it isn’t completely necessary, especially if it is quite sore.
3. Pin and Stretch: this is a technique which I feel really aids in returning range of motion in the joints. Essentially, if you are rolling along, say your lat muscle (latissimus dorsi for those that care), and you raise your arm above the head, you may find that you feel more of a stretch whilst compressing the muscle than you did before pulling out the roller (of course as you are pinning it down right?). What works well is if you do this at different points along the muscle you will find some areas restrict the movement more. Focus on these areas; pin the muscle with even light pressure and stretch the associated limb (if you don’t know which you can either google or else just try your different limbs.. sometimes it is your torso). Then have a look at your range of motion again: does the arm raise easier above your head or even further? Now that is pretty awesome huh?
4. Frictions: A quicker movement that you can use: think of it like kneading bread. Faster movements over a smaller area of the muscle back and forth until you feel a change in the tissue. The con of this technique is that for some muscles it is just too painful and if you are clumsy like me you risk stacking it.
This is a much firmer technique so don’t stay too long here, start small; say 20 seconds on each section (for example the calves, lower, middle, higher). If after a day or so your muscle feels like it benefited then this is a good amount of time for each part of the muscle. It is most important with this technique not to use it should you suspect an injury. If there is an underlying issue and you do this, you risk making it worse.
Foam rolling can be used for smaller muscles but it really shines on the larger ones. Remember at home, you aren’t treating injuries (unless under direction from a health care professional), you are merely performing a massage upon yourself as a way to maintain good muscular feel.
Our next article will focus on techniques and tips for different muscles. Should you have any requests for self massage techniques, feel free to contact us through our webpage. Whilst references have been used, large parts of my articles are based on my own experience as a Remedial Massage Therapist and what I feel works best (anecdotal evidence). Please do not use this as medical advice and if you have musculoskeletal pain or injury, please seek assessment from a physiotherapist or your GP.
Sriwongtong, Michelle, MD et al. “Does Massage Help Athletes After Exercise?” Ochsner Journal, 20, (2020): pp.121-122
Beardsley and Skarabot. “Effects of self-myofascial release: A systematic review” Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, 4 (2015): pp.747-758