Ask anyone who has had a massage what it felt like and they’ll likely sigh in memory; we all know how wonderful it can be, but the fact is, massage is more than just a pleasure, its one of the most important tools we have for rehabbing injured tissue, sorting pain, maximizing range of motion, and preventing future injuries. Unfortunately, though we’d be better for it, the average person doesn’t have the luxury of a daily massage.
The next best thing, although it does involve getting down on the floor, is foam rolling. But before we get to that let’s talk about stretching, because before foam rolling, stretching was the best solution outside of massage to achieve flexibility, range of motion and prevent injuries. For decades, coaches and trainers have drummed the importance of stretching deep into our heads and with good reason too. There are three main reasons people turn to stretching.
First off, injury prevention. Just a little time spent pre-workout can prevent months of stress and downtime afterwards. Plantar fasciitis and IT band syndrome are two common overuse injuries that can be prevented with prophylactic stretching, as are more acute injuries such as hamstring sprains. The second top reason people start stretching is that it enhances flexibility. People often start a stretching program to increase their range of motion and improve their flexibility and usually its for some ulterior reason, such as to improve their ability to perform in sports.
Finally, stretching is a stress-buster; as stress starts building in your mind and you feel like steam is going to shoot from your ears, it’s a good idea to work on loosening your muscle. Muscles that are contracted and tight can have a major impact on your well-being, throwing you into a downward spiral. Stretching helps them relax, enhancing blood flow and moving more oxygen to the brain. Speaking of the brain, stretching also leads to an endorphin release which can help drop you into euphoric tranquility.
Nutrition Coach Sarah Snyder recommends avoiding static stretches, the typical method of holding a stretch for 10 seconds, opting instead for dynamic stretches – those that involve movement. The theory is solid – that someone who is warming up for an activity should also have full range of motion and be able to jump right into a game if needed.
Now what about foam rolling? According to Coach Snyder, foam rolling covers all the benefits of regular stretching and more. “If you only have time for one, you should grab your trusty roller”, she says. When you use a foam roller, you’re engaging your muscles while pushing them out. Also, stretching has zero impact on your body’s myofascial layer, the fibrous tissue connecting bones, joints, muscles and nerves. Injuries and buildups of tissue adhesions cause trigger points which can lead to significant pain. A foam roller lets you to target these areas with sustained pressure, breaking them up.
So what is a foam roller and how do I use it?
Although you might think a foam roller is some new high-tech contraption, it’s really no more extravagant than a pool toy. Made of a dense extruded foam, rollers are generally around 6 inches in diametre, about 3 feet in length and come in a variety of colors and densities depending on your needs. There are tons of options too; everything from easy to carry rollers that slip right into a gym-bag, to rollers specifically intended for myofascial release. Cost-wise, you can pick one up for as little as $4 or drop as much as $80 in a specialty boutique.
Nothing can replace a massage by a professional therapist, but foam-rolling is a simple yet effective way of working the kinks from your muscles before and after a workout. In fact, it’s a good idea to get into the habit of using a roller in your daily routine. When working with foam rollers, your body weighs your muscles down as you roll forward and backwards and the momentum applies pressure to sore spots helping to both stretch-out tight muscles and release fascia.
While rollers can be used anywhere on the body, most athletes use them for hamstrings, glutes, quads, calves and back muscles. Generally, you should target each muscle group with between 30 seconds and a minute of rolling, putting extra emphasis on sore areas. Don’t go too fast either; you aren’t rolling out a pizza. Try moving slowly – no more than an inch or two per second, rolling from one end of each muscle all the way to the other. Repeat four times. Keep your core tight and engaged.
Coach Snyder also recommends forcing your shoulders down, away from your ears. It’s common, she says, to tense up when you feel pain, as you will when rolling over tender spots but for the best result you need to try to stay relaxed. This is especially so for first timers and this is because your muscles are still too tight – if you’ve ever had a deep massage you’ll understand what it feels like to be pushing on sore muscles. In time, they will loosen and you’ll have a more pleasurable experience. However, if pain starts tipping over the line, stop rolling – you may be doing more harm than good. In this case, get yourself to a doctor.
In conclusion, the jury’s still out on which is better – stretching or rolling, but it’s clear that rolling has some benefits stretching doesn’t. Either way, one or the other is a necessity for every serious workout routine. Skipping this step is a surefire way to find yourself on the bench at best and if you’re not so lucky, laid up in a hospital bed.