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Professional athletes know the benefit of regular sports massage for preventing injuries and improving range of motion. Not all of us can afford a weekly, or even monthly, massage, but there is an inexpensive, effective tool that can help you achieve your fitness goals—the foam roller.

What is a Foam Roller?

The foam roller is a firm cylinder made of high-density foam. Foam rollers are typically 36 inches long and 6 inches in diameter, though they do come in a variety of sizes and densities and can be round or half round. Like fitness balls and bands, the foam roller was originally part of the arsenal that physical therapists used in their rehabilitative work with patients—but this versatile tool has made its way into mainstream gyms and studios everywhere. You may have seen these white, black, or blue foam “logs” stacked in the corner of your gym.

Benefits of Foam Rollers

A foam roller is one of the most effective ways to break up and prevent the muscle knots that can occur from overuse, misaligned movement patterns, injuries, or inadequate stretching.

Just beneath the skin is a layer of soft connective tissue referred to as the superficial fascia. This fascia and our muscles comprise the myofascia system. Depending on our movement patterns, we can develop adhesions and knots in the myofascia system that can cause pain and restricted movement.

By using direct pressure to roll these areas on the foam roller, we can perform “myofascial release” to break up these knots and adhesions. If you want to improve your range of motion and work through the inevitable knots that build up after exercise, a foam roller might be just the tool you need.

How Are Foam Rollers Used?

The most common way to use a foam roller is by placing your body weight on the roller to lengthen the muscles and break up knots; however, sometimes a physical therapist will roll the roller on top of a patient in order to control the amount of weight applied.

The key to the foam roller is the application of direct pressure. You may have had a sports massage therapist dig into a pesky knot to release it. The foam roller will do the work of the massage therapist—without the hefty price tag.

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When rolling out tight spots:

  • Roll back and forth over the affected area for about 1-2 minutes.
  • When you reach a “knot” (sometimes referred to as a “trigger point”) stay there until you feel a release.
  • After spending time on the knot, roll the entire surrounding area again.
  • After rolling, stretch the affected muscle.

Below are some common areas that benefit from foam rolling:

  • Outer thighs and hips: The iliotibial band (IT band) runs on the outside of the thigh from the hip to the knee (connecting at the tibia) and is often the culprit behind chronic knee pain. The foam roller has become an essential tool for people with tight IT bands. Lie sideways on the roller, propped up by your elbow and slowly roll your thigh back and forth across the foam roller—from the hip to the knee and back again (and again and again). Be sure to breathe!
  • Quadriceps and hip flexors: Lie face down with the foam roller placed horizontally under your thighs, just above your knees. Place your hands on the floor and walk your hands back and forth to move your thighs along the roller.
  • Gluteal muscles: Our “glutes” are the large muscles in our rear end and are often tight. Sit on the foam roller with your hands on the floor behind you. Use your hands for balance as you roll your bottom on the roller.
  • Middle Back: Lie on the foam roller and cross your arms over your chest as you gently roll your back across the roller. You’ll feel a glorious release in your back.

Foam Rolling Tips

Foam rolling is most beneficial when performed consistently. It is not only excellent for breaking up knots that have already occurred, but also preventing new knots from occurring in the future. To reap the most benefits:

  • Roll several times a day for acute knots and/or injuries.
  • Roll before and after exercise.
  • Stretch after rolling.
  • Stay on soft tissue. (Avoid bony areas and joints.)

Investing in a Foam Roller

If you can’t find a foam roller at your gym—or if you prefer to have your own for regular use at home—you may want to invest in your own. Foam rollers are inexpensive. You can find them at your local sporting goods store or online for less than $20. Over time, the foam rollers made from high-density packing foam can break in and collapse in the middle. There are some slightly more expensive foam rollers made from closed cell foam or super high density EVA foam that are a bit sturdier.

The Foam Rolling Habit

Truth be told—foam rolling probably won’t feel great the first few times you do it. Some people joke that it “hurts so good.” However, if you stick with it, you’ll notice that it becomes more comfortable over time. Make it a habit—take a few minutes every day to roll—and you’ll notice huge results.