Throughout the season, all the training, competitions and outside stress can lead to chronic soreness and impaired recovery. A build up of tension in the body can make you feel “knots” in places that restrict your movement. These tight places can even refer pain to other parts of your body, thereby inhibiting your training. In addition to the ice bathing, stretching, proper sleep and nutrition that athletes focus on, there is a simple way to help maximize performance without much change in your busy lifestyle: foam rolling.
Foam rolling uses your own bodyweight against a cylindrical foam roller to produce some of the same positive effects on your body that deep tissue or sports massages provide, at a fraction of the cost. Foam rollers are inexpensive, easy to use, and can be taken anywhere. I do mean anywhere — my team could be seen foam rolling in a corner of the airport terminal while on a layover for a travel meet. Instead of requiring a masseuse and table for each athlete, you apply the pressure to muscle groups by gliding them over the firm surface of a roller. This will release a number of those knots or trigger spots, the physiology of which I will discuss here. After you get a few basic techniques down, you will find a number of creative ways to roll out tight spots.
Physiology of the Roll
So how does foam rolling help you? Fascia (particularly deep fascia) is a layer of fibrous connective tissue that surrounds muscles, ligaments, tendons, bones, nerves and blood vessels of the body. Think of fascia as an elastic layer of tissue that helps the body keep shape and move with the different organs. Fascia combined with muscle is referred to as the myofascia system.
Occasionally, due to muscle overuse, training, lack of stretching or disuse, the layer of fascia can stick to the muscle (a process known as adhesion). This can result in restricted movement, pain, soreness, reduced exchange of nutrients and waste due to poor circulation of blood, and a smaller range of motion in that area.
The process known as myofascial release involves the use of gentle and continuous pressure on the soft tissue while applying traction to the fascia. When using a foam roller, you can apply the same pressure and traction to your own body that you would receive with a massage. The motion produces a lengthening and release of the fascia along with the breakdown of scar tissue and adhesion to muscle. When the fascia releases, circulation to and from muscle tissue improves and pain and soreness diminish as the body can process lactic acid quicker. In a study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning, post-exercise fatigue was lower in athletes who foam rolled prior to the athletic test compared to athletes who conducted planking exercises beforehand. When fascia is allowed to release from muscle, much like opening a vacuum-sealed bag, there is more room for waste removal (lactate clearance) and oxygen delivery while the muscle itself begins to relax. Another study found that range of motion around the knee joint improved by up to 10 degrees following two one-minute trials of foam rolling the quadriceps compared to no foam rolling. The best aspect of foam rolling is that you feel the positive effects immediately!
Treat foam rolling as a form of therapy for your body. When you first attempt rolling, you may feel tight and uncomfortable with the pressure on your muscles, so go slow and steady. When you find a place that is particularly knotted, focus on that area gently for a longer time (30 seconds), but don’t overdo it. I generally foam roll for about 5-10 minutes prior to exercising. Any time of day is perfect, but foam rolling prior to exercise will be most useful.
Before your warm up, get on a roller to loosen up tight places and extend your range of motion. This will help you feel better in warm up and your workout or competition.As for types of rollers, there are varying levels of stiffness that you can purchase. The white rollers (can be found here) tend to be softer, green and blue ones (click here) are medium, and the purple or black ones (here) are firmer. Some even come with bumps or ridges (here) for additional pressure. I prefer to use the black foam roller because it gives me the pressure I need. Start off with whatever level of firmness you like, and gradually work your way up if you find one to be too soft (again, they are very inexpensive). You can also opt for a travel size roller that is shorter in length but able to fit in a backpack—very convenient for competitions away.
Nick’s Video Series on Layover Foam Rolling is a great place to start learning your basic techniques on a roller, which can be useful in any pre-competition or pre-training scenario. With practice, you will have relaxed muscles and be more able to dig in to previously stiff areas. Enjoy the relief that foam rolling provides as you release tension in places you didn’t even know you had it! Foam rolling is an easy way to enhance your performance, so start taking advantage of its benefits now and realize how good your body can feel!
- J Strength Cond Res. 2014 Jan;28(1):61-8. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3182956569.
The effects of myofascial release with foam rolling on performance.
Healey KC, Hatfield DL, Blanpied P, Dorfman LR, Riebe D.
- J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Mar;27(3):812-21. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31825c2bc1.
An acute bout of self-myofascial release increases range of motion without a subsequent decrease in muscle activation or force.
MacDonald GZ, Penney MD, Mullaley ME, Cuconato AL, Drake CD, Behm DG, Button DC.