This article is an absolute basics guide to foam rolling: what a foam roller is, how it works, and how to use it. Please take care when using a foam roller, or any other kind of mobility tool, and if you feel pain at all, stop.
Pain vs. Discomfort
The first major point to consider when you start using a foam roller, is that pain and discomfort are different things. Pain is your body’s way of telling you that something is wrong, and that you should stop. Pain can feel sharp or jarring, or it can seem to send shooting signals throughout your legs, arms, back, wherever. Pain is bad.
Discomfort, especially when it comes to foam rolling, is normal. If you’ve been doing a lot of running, for example, it’s expected that your hamstrings will be tight. For your hamstrings to then be uncomfortable when you roll on them is normal. Anywhere between 6 and 7 on your own personal discomfort scale is ok, just breathe through it.
How can I tell the difference?
Let’s say you’re rolling your hamstring, and you get a shooting pain up a nerve into your back — that’s pain, so stop and move the roller. If you feel a generally dull, but uncomfortable stretch in your hamstring, but no shooting pain, that’s normal.
What is a foam roller?
A foam roller is a long tube of hard plastic, covered by a spongy material that’s covered in little nobbly bits and bumps. Athletes, gym enthusiasts, yogis and people who do a lot of sitting or manual work, can benefit from spending a few minutes a day rolling out on a foam roller.
How does a foam roller work?
Foam rolling is essentially self-massage. The concept of massage is to break apart knots in muscle tissues, and help muscles to lengthen back out into their normal state. Think of a foam roller as a baker kneading dough; a tight muscle is a big round ball of dough, waiting to be stretched. The roller acts like the baker’s hands, pulling and stretching the muscle back into shape.
Ok, so how do I use a foam roller?
Most people when they start out, don’t use the foam roller correctly, and there are three main reasons why:
1. It hurts too much so they stop
2. They don’t spend long enough rolling a particular area
3. They roll too quickly
The solution to the first reason is simply to suck it up, because foam rolling hurts. Secondly, you need to be rolling a muscle (hamstring, quad, lat,) for at least two minutes. Yes, really. Thirdly, slow down, think steamroller, not rolling pin.
To use a foam roller (e.g. on hamstring):
● Place the foam roller on the ground so that you can roll back and forth on it
● Sit on the floor and position your hamstring on top of the roller
● Support most of your weight with your hands and opposing leg
● Gently and slowly work your hamstring over the roller, finding and concentrating on the most uncomfortable parts
Tip: If you shower before rolling, your muscles will be warmer, and it’ll be less painful.
Which muscles can I foam roll?
All of the following respond well to foam rolling:
● Calves and soles of feet
● Lower and upper back
Foam rolling is not really suitable for:
There are other tools for knees, traps and neck, such as mobility balls, floss bands and sticks.
Be safe with your foam rolling, and enjoy your new found flexibility.