As athletes we spend a lot of time thinking about how to get more out of our training, but as coaches we know that the time between workouts is when adaptation occurs. Paying attention to activities that increase mobility and ultimately allow you to train more is a no-brainer. As a massage therapist and coach, I’m often asked what an athlete can do between training or massage sessions to jump-start recovery, improve range of motion, and keep from walking around like a 90-year-old. My answer is always the same: especially if you have a desk job (most of us), one of the best things you can do for your body, and in turn your performance, is become friends with a foam roller.
I recommend the TriggerPoint Grid. It is small—13 inches, though they also have long and mini versions—and hollow, making it easy to pack along for travel, and it has soft foam with ridges that can work muscles slightly differently than the harder, more solid foam rollers you might find at a PT office (though those work just fine).
Before getting to the nitty-gritty of how to use a foam roller, it’s important to understand the tissue you will be working, and also the goals: to increase blood flow and improve range of motion.
Understanding Your Anatomy
Put very simply, our skeletal system is made of bones and muscles that work together to allow movement. Looking at our body from a mechanical and structural standpoint, bones act as levers and muscles act as pulleys, and like any structure, something holds everything together. After all, we don’t want our quadriceps to separate from our femur. That glue-like something is called connective tissue. It lives throughout our body in the form of tendons and ligaments connecting muscles and bones, and as fascia surrounding nerves, bones, organs, and muscles.
Fascia absorbs shock and distributes force, but since it surrounds each bone, nerve, organ, muscle fiber, group of fibers, muscle, and group of muscles, it also acts like Saran Wrap, sticking and shrinking around itself and its surroundings. In the case of muscles, especially those that are consistently in a shortened position like the fronts of the hips from sitting all day, it can limit range of motion and decrease blood flow. Similar to wearing too skinny jeans, if the fascia is tight it is more difficult to move. Foam rolling in a sense stretches out those jeans, improving blood circulation and your body’s ability to move.
Pulleys and Levers
If we go back to the pulley-and-lever idea, when one pulley shortens, the opposite pulley must lengthen. A step-up, for example, shortens the quads on the front of your thigh and in response the hamstring on the back of your thigh lengthens. After many, many step-ups, your quads become shortened even when you’re standing still, and your hamstrings must accommodate that. For activities such as mountain running, skiing, mountaineering, and desk jockeying, the muscles on the front of the body tend to shorten while the posterior muscles get tight from continually stretching out.
As anyone getting back into climbing shape knows from hanging from a hold or pull-up bar, just because a muscle is stretched out does not mean that it is relaxed or able to move well. If you have tight hamstrings (or any other muscle) that don’t feel better after stretching, it’s likely because the short muscle is the opposing one. Other factors contribute to this concept, but in general the basic goal with foam rolling is to lengthen short muscles so that the lengthened muscles can also relax.
Foam Rolling How-To: Quads and Hips
Now on to foam rolling practices. The following two movements help with IT band tightness, knee pain, and Achilles tendon and plantar fasciitis issues, among others.
Lie on your stomach and forearms—or straight arms if you need less weight on your legs—with your quads across the foam roller. Gradually roll from hip to knee and back up to the hip. If you get to a spot that is particularly interesting, hang out there for a minute or two to help release muscle tension.
Rolling the quads and hip flexors takes care of the fronts of the legs, but balancing the backs of the legs involves rolling the hips, which is easiest done one at a time.
Lie on your side with the foam roller between your ilia (hip bone) and femur. Gradually rotate around the roller to get the back of the hip. This will help release the lateral stabilizing muscles that so often are pulled taut by the hip flexors.