Foam Rolling (Releasing) 101
A very common misconception about foam rolling is that it must be done aggressively and that it has to be excruciating. If it is extremely painful while you roll (rolling isn’t the best term for it either – more on that in a bit) you are probably doing it wrong. The object of foam releasing is to loosen fascia and release “trigger points.” Fascia is a form of connective tissue that surrounds and connects different structures in the body such as muscle, nerves, blood vessels etc that almost resembles a spider web that has been strung between structures. When there is an injury or tension in the area, the fascia can become thickened and sticky, causing muscles and other body structures to lose their efficient gliding and movement on each other.
Foam releasing, when done correctly, helps to break the adhesions and help the muscles glide more efficiently on each other. Foam releasing also helps stimulate the body to produce a substance called proteoglycan, which acts as a lubricant to the fascia and further helps these body structures move smoothly on themselves (kind of like oil in a car!). Trigger points are spots of high irritability in the muscle itself that often have a harder nodule or “knot” that you can feel. Trigger points often occur as a result of overuse, injury or stress to the area and can radiate pain to larger areas that the point itself.
Ok enough technical speak, how do we actually foam release?
Start with something soft and pliable (foam roll, yoga mat with PVC inside, soft ball) that you can relax into and build up toward something more aggressive as you are able to relax into it. Don’t start with an aggressive device such as a rumble roller because you won’t be able to relax into and you will injure the location further
Gently and slowly roll over the entire muscle belly until you find “the spot.” You will know when you are on it because it will be much more sensitive than the rest of the muscle.
Relax the muscle and sink into the foam. If you cannot relax into the foam, back off slightly or try something even softer. The technique is ineffective if the muscles are not relaxed. Why? Because when we are contracted, the muscles will not glide on each other and we are just promoting more stress in the location in the form of a firm object pushing on the muscle. This should not hurt! Mild discomfort is okay, but pain is not. Avoid rolling back and fourth over the spot and focus on sinking into the tissue (hence why foam rolling is not the best term).
Maintain this position for at least 30 seconds, up to 2 minutes is best and will give you an optimal release. As you relax into the foam, you will eventually feel the muscle begin to give way. This is when the myofascial release has occurred.
Release can be performed on any muscle in the body. A foam roller isn’t always necessary and other household equipment may be just as effective. When releasing smaller muscle groups, such as the small muscles of the feet, something smaller such as a tennis ball (can work up to something harder, like a golf ball) may be more effective.
Follow up your release with a stretch to the muscle that you have been working on for at least 30 seconds.
When should I foam release?
Release is best performed before a workout as a form of stretching. Releasing will help to encourage blood flow to the muscles and bring an optimal balance of relaxation, stretch and preparation for exercise. Foam releasing is also a great cool-down at the end of a workout, race or game as it will immediately address any potential muscle tightness that may have occurred as a result.
At the end of the day, it is important to figure out why the fascia and muscle have become stressed and problematic. Foam releasing addresses the symptoms that result, however if the underlying issue is not resolved then it is likely that the problem will reoccur. If this is the case I would highly recommend seeing a health care practitioner who has been trained in identifying and treating faulty movement patterns and musculoskeletal injuries.