The Foam Roller

November 12th, 2012
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If you’ve been to the gym or maybe even a yoga class over recent years, you may have noticed a number of new ‘toys,’ like the Bosu ball (the half ball with a flat side), medicine ball (old school athletics coming mainstream), balance disk or stability cushion, and stability ball. These have all become quite common aides in developing balance and strength. The most useful tool I’ve found is one you may not suspect.

It’s the foam roller—likely the simplest looking tool there is in the fitness world. It’s just a piece of cylindrical foam that’s about 3-4 ft. long and varies in density. It seems to apply a softer, better-disbursed pressure than other wooden, rubber, plastic or mechanical aids made for a similar purpose.

What it can do for you is nothing short of amazing. The basis behind foam roller therapy is Myofascial release, also known as MFR. Just what is MFR you ask? To start, let’s talk about what fascia is. Fascia surrounds and supports every structure in our body. From organs, to muscle, to bones, it’s everywhere. It has a spider web like appearance and is very flexible and easily stretches. However, when trauma or inflammation in an area occurs, the fascia can quickly become a tight web of connective tissue that limits movement in the area and also press down on nerves, causing pain.

Myofascia is just the fascia that is connected to your muscles. This is probably the biggest concern when movement is restricted due to fascia being tight, because our muscles are responsible for any movement we make. Note that problems in the fascia do not always appear on standard medical tests (i.e. – CAT scans, X-Rays, electromyography, etc.). So if you were injured in a certain area and you’re having problems with movement and some pain, it could be due to the tightening of the connective tissue in the area. What can be done to treat this? The application of MFR techniques may be the best solution.

Massage is one form of MFR, and a knowledgeable massage therapist, with some help from a physical or occupational therapist, will know exactly where and how to massage a tight area to alleviate the tension and pain. However, we don’t all have access to or the money to pay for a therapist to attend to every single one of our aches and pains. This is where Self Myofascial Release comes in, or commonly referred to as SMR.

For small areas like the feet or hands, a tennis ball can be a great tool in massaging and applying constant pressure to the affected area. This constant pressure helps to elongate the muscle and fascia and therefore increase the flexibility of the tissue.

For larger muscle groups and hard to reach places, foam rolling is the best way to do SMR. Using body weight to apply pressure, you can simply place the roller on the ground and roll your troubled body part over it. For example, put your calves on top of the roller, then hold yourself up on your hands and apply weighted pressure onto your calves. The same thing can be done for your quads, hamstrings, IT band, adductors, lattisimus dorsi, lumbar and sacrum regions of the spine. You simply apply pressure to the area that feels tight and tender, holding for about 30 seconds. Warning, the process may be painful. But, the results can be amazing.

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Of course, you should not go about doing this without guidance from a professional who is trained in the techniques of using a foam roller and they determine that it could be of benefit you. Speaking from personal experience (having gone through therapy for athletic injuries), it’s a tool that I believe can benefit people of any age and fitness level. It has helped me tremendously and, in my opinion, can be useful to anyone suffering from inflexibility and muscle pain. Look into SMR techniques and foam rolling. Ask your care provider. It may change your life!

Contributed by Casey Okami-Watanabe-ACE certified personal trainer, NASM certified fitness nutrition specialist.

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