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How to Use a Foam Roller

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How to Use a Foam Roller

Foam rollers can deeply massage muscles and improve healing.

rachelkramerbussel.com via Flickr

I’m going to assume you don’t have your own massage therapist. If that’s the case, you can work out the knots in your poor, overused muscles with a foam roller. This piece of equipment is essential to have and use at home post mountain bike ride.

Don’t know what a foam roller is or the best way to use it? About.com interviewed Bryce Taylor, PT, MS, of Downtown Physical Therapy, Indianapolis, IN, and James Gladstone, MD, orthopaedic surgeon, sports medicine specialist and co-chief of sports medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, about the proper way to use one.

About.com: What is a foam roller?

Taylor: A foam roller is a dense cylinder of various sizes and material densities used for self myofascial release, flexibility, stability and balance training. Many rollers are now made of a hard plastic with dense foam padding vs. solid dense foam to retain the shape of the roller during heavy application.

About.com: What is it ideal for?

Taylor: Foam rollers are ideal to facilitate muscle relaxation, improve circulation and improve antagonist muscle contraction.

Dr. Gladstone: Stretching tight muscles and tendons, deep massage (myofascial type massage), stretching fascia, breaking up scar tissue and adhesions.

About.com: How does it help treat overuse injuries?

Taylor: Foam rollers have become very popular because of their affordability and independent use. A spectrum of competitive athletes and recreational fitness enthusiasts use foam rolling following endurance activities such as running and cycling. Due to the repetitive use of the same muscles, microtrauma and pain result. Foam rolling can help decrease post-exercise discomfort and improve healing.

Dr. Gladstone: Overuse is usually secondary to repetitive microtrauma, leading to microtearing of the muscles, tendons and fascia. This in turn leads to an inflammatory response with formation of scar tissue also known as adhesions. Stretching and breakdown of the adhesions, increased blood flow and a restoration of the normal resting length of the muscle-tendon unit helps heal overuse injuries. Foam rollers help achieve these desired results.

About.com: What does proper use of a foam roller entail and what are some common ways it's misused?

Taylor: Proper application of a foam roller should not only include passive longitudinal rolling, but various active and passive movements to achieve the best results. Many use the foam roller for range of motion, stability and balance training as well. It should not be used over joint surfaces, but restricted to the soft tissue, where the muscles and tendons span. Although the Iliotibial Band is a region of discomfort, it should be noted that this dense fibrous tissue cannot be lengthened. Instead, focus on the contributors of the IT Band, such as the gluteals and hip flexor region.

Dr. Gladstone: Foam rollers are typically used for longer muscles where body weight can be used to apply the pressure. Hamstrings, IT Band, calves and plantar fascia are some of the typical muscle groups foam rollers are used for. Incorrect positioning or applying too much or too concentrated pressure can bruise rather than relax and stretch.

About.com: What muscles can a foam roller treat?

Taylor: Depending on the size and diameter of a foam roller, it would be ideal for various body surfaces. If you are working with a small diameter roller, smaller muscles can be targeted better, such as gastrocnemius and posterior tibialis. If you are working with a larger diameter, which most rollers are, a more general approach should be used to target large muscle groups such as hamstrings, quadriceps, gluteals and calf.

About.com: What steps should an athlete take if they’ve never used a foam roller before?

Dr. Gladstone: Work with either a physical therapist or athletic trainer to understand proper use of the roller. Watching an instructional video is also advised.

About.com: What are some guidelines for at-home use of a foam roller?

Taylor: Find a firm surface, such as a wood or laminate floor, if you have thick carpet pile. Focus on the areas of most discomfort and utilize oblique as well as long axis rolling techniques. In other words, gently roll the foam roller from one joint toward the other in a straight line as well as short diagonals.

Dr. Gladstone: It is safe to use on a daily basis. Apply enough pressure to feel it in the injured area. Some discomfort is okay, a lot is not. Any discomfort should be essentially gone after the session. Soreness is okay. It should feel like you've had a deep vigorous massage, not like you've been run over by a truck.

About.com: Describe how a cyclist might benefit from using a roller. What areas should they focus on?

Dr. Gladstone: Plantar fascia, calves, hamstrings, IT Band, buttock muscles (gluteals).

About.com: Describe how one can use a roller to improve range of motion, core stability and tight hamstrings.

Taylor: It is important to identify your objective with the foam roller prior to application. If you are using the foam roller for spinal range of motion such as reversing thoracic kyphosis (rounded upper back) as occurs more often in long distance cycling, you would place the foam roller transverse to the spine, near the bottom of the shoulder blades while resting in a supine position.

If you are using a roller to improve core stability, place the foam roller under your forearms or hands in a plank position. Begin with knees bent and gently roll away toward your head until you feel mild discomfort in the abdominals and return to the start position. If you would like to progress the challenge, raise your knees and perform repetitions as you would with strength training.

If you are using your foam roller for self myofascial release of the hamstrings, assume a long sit position with your treating leg extended. Position the roller near your sit bone to begin long axis rolling. Use the opposite bent knee such as a bridge to unload from the roller as needed while controlling your thigh in a rolling direction toward the knee. You may require repositioning due to the length of your thigh. Repeat this for 90 seconds and repeat with the leg turned in and out.

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