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Let's be honest, foam rolling isn't sexy. You will never see a buff dude posing with a roller on a magazine cover.
But if things like staying injury free, getting rid of pain and being able to move better so you can dominate your workout are up your street, then it's pretty damn useful.
So after speaking to three people in the last four days who were complaining about shoulder and knee pain and finding out that none of them used the rollers I figured I'd get my act together and write a little something on the subject....what it is, what it does and doesn't do.
Let's Take This Back To The Start
If you currently have a slightly quizzical look on your face and wondering what the hell a roller is, then here's a pic.
There are few greater loves than that between a man with a sore knee and his roller.
Essentially it provides a free massage. Just as a therapist applies pressure to your muscles and tissues to help them to relax, moving across the roller provides relief for tense tissues....it's never going to be as good as having a skilled therapist, but my athletic skills have never made someone want to pay for me to have my own, 24 hour masseuse.
One of the things it doesn't do in the short term is make you look attractive. The way your face will move and your eyes twitch when you find a fun spot will not attract anyone you would feel safe being alone with.
The idea is that your tissues relax which, in turn, improves your ability to move. Tissues are less likely to be inflamed by faulty movement mechanics, therefore "ouchies" will get a bit easier and you may find it more comfortable to get into previously difficult positions, such as moving through a squat pattern easier.
It also doesn't create a permanent change.
What it does do is create a window of time, which you can use to perform exercises that will help you to move and feel better in the long term.
Neither is it stretching. There is no change to the length of the tissues, rather the tone of the tissues (how tense they are) is decreased.
Rolling targets the myofascia, which is a tissue that interlinks and surrounds every part of the body. It's kinda like The Force in Star Wars....hmmm, surrounds you it does.
Fascia links muscles, bones, ligaments, organs....everything. If it's not a happy bunny then it'll let you know about it.
If you've ever cooked or chopped a chicken breast you'll have noticed that breast is in two parts. If you peel the upper part away from the lower you'll see a membraneous tissue - that's the fascia of the chicken.
As a Brucie bonus - if you've ever left a chicken breast out of the fridge for too long you'll know that it goes tough and hard to move. This is what happens to your fascia if it becomes dehydrated. One of the simplest ways to avoid low back pain - drink water and keep the fascia happy.
When to roll?
Personally I think just before a workout, as the first part of your warm up works best. Decreasing the tone of the tissue before moving into the mobility drills is the best way to set yourself up for productive workout.
But if you're feeling a little beaten up from training then spending a longer time hanging out on the roller can be pretty nice. If you're new to training just getting yourself moving across the roller can feel like a bit of a workout to begin with.
The structure of having it as part of the workout means that it generally makes folks more likely to actually do it. I'll be honest, I've got a roller at home. There have been many times I've looked at it from the couch whilst thinking how my time would be better used by getting on it, before slumping a little further into the couch and Netflix binge.
Important point - a foam roller is very different to a steam roller.
The aim is not to put lots and lots of pressure onto the roller and attempt to annihilate and knots you discover.
There are 13 different kinds of receptors that cause contraction and relaxation of different tissues. There are some that tell you you're stretch too far, some that make the muscle very fast and there are some that are on a spinal loop. This means the signal to make them fire comes from the spine without consulting the brain. Such as when you touch a hot surface and immediately draw your hand back without any thought. By the time the brain realised you were in danger and decided a course of action you'd be seriously hurt. So a more primitive system gets you away.
The receptors we affect in the fascia are also on a spinal loop but a much slower rate (they're known as Pacini fibres and Ruffini Endings for the nerds in the audience). They also have a low threshold to pressure.
This means in practice that foam rolling works best with a lighter pressure and over a slightly longer period of time. If you're making the sexy faces I mentioned earlier then it's probably a sign that you need to go a little easier.
This doesn't mean that you need to spend a long time on the roller.
If the area you're working on feels ok then shift on to the next area. If you find a fun spot just hang out on it for a little longer. You're probably looking at 15-20 seconds per body part.
Neither do you have to roll across the whole body every workout. If it's a lower body session then rolling the legs probably makes sense. If there is a particular spot that's been feeling a bit ouchie lately, then probably give that some love.
If you take nothing else away from this post, remember this.
Yep, breathing is a fantastic habit for most people and something I recommend you continue to do for the rest of your life. But finding a fun spot with the roller often makes people tense up and forget to take some oxygen in.
Steady state breathing is a very important part of getting the tissues to relax. So move steadily across the roller and focus on some steady breathing from your belly and not sounding like you're entering the later stages of labour.
Increased tone in the muscle is very often related to sympathetic nervous system activity, otherwise known as the fight or flight option. This can be increased by any kind of stress, physical or psychological. Taking deep breaths is the easiest way to transfer out of this into a more parasympathetic nervous system mode (otherwise known as "rest and digest")
This is something you already kinda knew....just think of a time when you've been seriously wound up and someone told you to take a deep breath. We instinctively know this whether we realise it or not.
The take away points:
Roll before you train.
Don't try to smash the muscles into submission, go fairly easy. No more than 7/10 discomfort.
If you find something fun, spend a bit time there, if not move on.
Then go forth and dominate your workout.