On Your Health

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The Importance of Foam Rolling

When it comes to exercise, what you do in recovery mode is just as important as what you do in workout mode. The foam roller is one of the most simple and popular tools used to aid muscle recovery, but it must be used correctly to be effective.

What exactly can a foam roller do for you?

A foam roller, at the most basic level, is a tool for self-massage. Using a foam roller can help alleviate muscle tenderness by releasing myofascial buildup: essentially, adhesions in your muscles and connective tissue. By applying pressure to pinpointed spots on muscles, tendons and ligaments, foam rolling can loosen tight soft tissue and can improve blood flow. This stimulates your muscles for optimal recovery and performance and gives your bones a better support system. The National Academy of Sports Medicine found in a study that those who foam roll after soreness-inducing exercise performed better at 24, 48 and 72 hours post-exercise than those who did not foam roll.

Why muscles feel sore

Fascia is the webbed, fibrous connective tissue surrounding and supporting larger muscles and body parts. Think of peeling an orange and seeing the white, fibrous tissue beneath the orange’s skin that supports and protects the layers below – this is similar to how human fascia functions. Fascia can stiffen and tighten with frequent repetitive motion. When we exercise with intensity, we’re breaking down and building up new muscle. During this process, micro-tears in the fascia and muscle can lead to sore spots, or what we might refer to as "knots."

While foam rolling offers numerous benefits to alleviate soreness and improve flexibility, if done incorrectly, you can actually do more harm than good.

The dos and don’ts of foam rolling

The dos of foam rolling are simple: make foam rolling a priority after exercise, just as you should stretching, nutrition and hydration. Foam rolling alone is not an effective recovery tool after intense aerobic exercise, and doing it for just a few seconds won’t help. Spend at least five to 15 minutes foam rolling after stretching as part of your cool-down routine. Talk to a professional, licensed personal trainer or physical therapist if you’re unsure about proper techniques for foam rolling, and do make sure you’re getting plenty of protein in your diet to help aid in muscle rehabilitation.

As for foam-rolling don’ts:

Don’t go too fast. Rolling quickly back and forth over a foam roller is not only ineffective, it can be harmful. Make sure you’re rolling slowly enough to give the affected muscle areas time to relax and adapt to the compression. If one spot feels particularly sore, use shorter, slower rolls over that area.

Don’t go too slow. On the contrary, you don’t want to roll too slowly, either. Placing pressure on a sore spot for too long can cause nerve damage or harm the tissue. If you have a tender area that is not relieved by proper foam roll use, consult a professional for further treatment.

Don’t foam roll your lower back or stomach. Your lower torso is more susceptible to injury via foam rollers than other areas of the body because the spine and internal organs are less protected. Anything between your upper rib cage and pelvis should not be targeted with the foam roller. If exercise is causing you lower back pain, consult a physical therapist.

Don’t forget about your posture. As you’re rolling face-down to get the front of your legs, or rolling on one side to massage your iliotibial (IT) band, be mindful of your posture and keep a neutral spine. Have a licensed personal trainer watch as you foam roll to make sure your spine is in alignment as you roll and reposition.

Have questions about foam rolling? The licensed professionals at the YMCA Healthy Living Center – INTEGRIS are happy to show you the ropes. Stop by the Northwest Oklahoma City location today.