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12 Days of Fitness 2015: Day 11 – Foam Rolling 101

December 19, 2015 0 Comments

(This is Part 11 of a 12 part series to provide you with some helpful blurbs and tips to keep your fitness in focus over the holiday season)

foam-rollerFitness fads come and go and I only endorse or use the ones I know are worth their merit. Some are not always obvious or popular in the public eye while others are everywhere you look. Take for example the foam roller; a compressed, often cylindrical piece of foam where people roll themselves on in some bizarre looking horizontal dance. Today, foam rollers can be found almost anywhere from gyms, rehab centers, and homes to specialty stores and big name retailers. Why? Because they work but it takes a better understanding and appreciation of how and what they do that makes them a valuable tool in your arsenal.

It’s All About the Fascia

Fascia is the connective tissue beneath the skin that surrounds the muscles. It is made primarily of densely packed collagen fibers that permeate your muscles, bones, nerves, blood vessels and organs. There isn’t a place in your body where fascia doesn’t exist. Over time with training and/or physical activity, the muscles become tight and the fascia starts to thicken and shorten to protect the underlying muscle from further damage. Sometimes the fibers and fascia contract so much they form trigger points, which manifest as sore spots needing to be released. The problem is fascia also has the ability to contract independently of the muscles it surrounds and it responds to stress without your conscious command.  That means fascia can impact movements, for better or worse.  When fascia becomes restricted, adhesions form causing soreness, restricted movement, gait change and potential injury.

Enter the Foam Roller

Foam rolling, a type of myofascial release, is the application of pressure to eliminate scar-tissue and soft-tissue adhesion by freeing up your fascia. Once a technique only performed by skilled physical therapists and massage therapists, self-myofascial release through the use of a foam roller can be very beneficial. The good news is fascia and trigger points can be released. Even better, once released, every one of the problems tight fascia and muscles have caused usually clears up. The goal of using the foam roller is to stretch and loosen the fascia so that it and other structures can move more freely resulting in decreased muscle and joint pain, increased circulation and improved mobility, balance and gait for peak mobility and performance. But like anything that is good, too much or improperly utilized methods can be more detrimental than beneficial.

Beware the Foam Roller

Foam rolling can be the savoir for those who are chronically injury-prone, those who train hard, or those chronically stiff from sitting at a desk all day — if used the right way. If not, you risk irritating, and possibly injuring, your body further. Here are some of the most common mistakes when using the foam roller

  • Rolling directly on an injured area. Seems counter-intuitive but as most things in relation to the body, unless it’s blunt trauma, the affected area is generally the symptom, not the cause of the issue. When it comes to foam rolling and myofascial release, constantly working the area of pain could create more inflammation and tension in the area, further tensing the muscles and fascia. What to do instead: Slowly foam roll your way away from the pain center to the connecting muscles. Once you hit the attachment areas, work those thoroughly. Then proceed back to the area of pain and work gently at first. Visualize yourself “melting away” the tightness. Not only will you avoid inciting excess inflammation this way, but you’ll target the real source of your injury.
  • Foam rolling too quickly. Foam rolling initially even if done properly hurts. Period. Human nature is to roll through or endure pain quickly. Unfortunately, foam rolling quickly doesn’t accomplish the objective – releasing fascia and relaxing muscles. What to do instead: You need to be slow and deliberate in your movements. While it may feel better to go fast, releasing fascia takes time. Once you find a sensitive area, slowly work back and forth over the spot. Again, be thoughtful and think of foam rolling like melting through the muscle and fascia.
  • Staying on one spot too long. While this may sound contradictory to the previous statement, it’s not. Staying on one spot for too long might irritate a nerve or damage the tissue, which can cause bruising and further inflammation. What to do instead: Be gentle at first. Start with half your body weight, using your hands or other leg to adjust pressure, and slowly work into full body weight. The maximum amount of time you should spend on any one area is 20 seconds or so. After this, you only risk irritating the spot more than you’re helping it. If you have a really troublesome area you can always come back for another session in the evening when the muscles have had time to relax.
  • Using bad posture and form. Foam rolling is hard work and I almost guarantee you’ll break a sweat. Just as with a strength training exercise, it’s easy to let your form deteriorate, especially if you are tired. What to do instead: Understand your anatomy a little better. Don’t approach foam rolling haphazardly. Stay focused on your form throughout your entire session and if you’re not quite sure how to do it properly, find someone who has the experience to show you.


See you tomorrow for Day 12 of the 12 Days of Fitness.


Til next time, train smart, eat well, and be better.

Day 1 – Chew Your Food
Day 2 – Fitness for the Road
Day 3 – The Many Names of Sugar
Day 4 – Side Stitches: Causes and Treatments
Day 5 – The 5 Reasons Why You Should Never Feel Hungry When Trying to Lose Weight
Day 6 – 10 Rules of Fitness
Day 7 – Which Are You – A Chronic Dieter or A Healthy Eater?
Day 8 – What Happens When You Skip Your Workout
Day 9 – The Truth About Lactic Acid
Day 10 – Better Nutrition Starts With a Better Plan

About the Author:

Jeff Harrison is a fitness coach based in Pottstown, PA. He received a BS in Exercise and Sport Science from Penn State University and is an NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), NSCA Certified Personal Trainer (NSCA-CPT) and ACE Advanced Health and Fitness Specialist (ACE-AHFS). Jeff's articles have been published in peer-reviewed journals as well as consumer oriented websites and magazines.

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