That knot in your quadriceps muscle. That irritation on the outside of your thigh.
We all have aches and pains. And while many of us exercise and pursue our sporting passions to, at least in part, stay healthy, sometimes all that running or cycling or even recreational softball can wear our bodies down, even to the point of injury.
Enter the foam roller.
Maybe you have seen one at the sporting goods store or watched someone roll over one on the floor at the gym, perhaps wincing in discomfort. Maybe your running buddy or chiropractor has even suggested that you use one. They are cylinders made of dense foam, some are hollow and others are not. And they are hard: Rolling on one feels similar to what it might feel like to roll on a rolling pin. One of those tubes could be a powerful tool in helping you heal from an injury or preventing one in the first place.
“If you have a restriction in your body, your body will adapt and compensate for that restriction, and then you create a pattern of that 'new normal' and that ultimately can create nagging pains,” explains Ashleigh Mitchell, who teaches a monthly foam-roller clinic at the running shoe store FootZone in downtown Bend.
Mitchell is a certified Pilates teacher who primarily works out of the Athletic Club of Bend. Self myofascial release techniques, she says, are her specialty, and she has been teaching those techniques to others for about eight years. That sounds like a fancy term, but basically, fascia is a connective tissue that surrounds and supports muscle.
The foam roller, Mitchell says, is a tool to release the muscle and fascia, to help create space, allowing for joint mobility and muscle engagement.
Essentially, using a foam roller is akin to giving yourself a deep tissue massage. Mitchell recommends using a foam roller before working out for alignment purposes and afterward for recovery purposes. Back, thighs, hips, calves — almost any body part can be foam-rolled. And remember balance.
“Whatever you do to one side, do to the other,” Mitchell says.
Colleen Moyer, a manager at FootZone, could be considered a poster child for foam rolling.
Like other athletic types, Moyer, 42 and an avid ultramarathon runner, has owned a foam roller but never used it much until earlier this year, when she happened to be working during one of Mitchell's clinics and decided to sit in. (I cannot judge. I attended Mitchell's most recent clinic, but prior to that, my foam roller was serving as a stand for my TV antenna.) Not long after starting her own foam-rolling routine, Moyer discovered that some nerve issues she had been experiencing in her calves cleared up. She uses the foam roller for about 30 minutes per session and does so at least every other day.
“I am very faithful to that foam roller,” says Moyer. “I'm maybe a little obsessive with it.”
If starting your own foam-rolling routine sounds appealing, keep in mind that different rollers have different densities. They vary by brand, but generally, the darker the color of the roller, the more dense the material. Some come with various types of surfacing, such as nubs, to get into the tissue even more, and some are even reinforced with PVC pipe.
So go a little easy on yourself at first. Using a foam roller is not like getting a relaxing massage at the spa. It should make you feel uncomfortable — but only to a point.
“If you are new to the practice, starting with the least dense foam roller, it will likely be the best choice,” Mitchell advises. “Because if it's too painful to be on the roller and stick with the practice, you won't want to continue to do it, and you won't get any results.
“You have to be able to relax a little bit so that you can spend time,” she adds. “Time is a big element of the fascial release, so the longer you can stay on the tissue, on the trigger point, the likelihood of it releasing is greater.”
Foam rollers can usually be found at running shoe shops and sporting goods stores, as well as online. Cost varies, but depending on your density needs, you should be able to find one for between $30 and $70. Worth noting is that some types of rollers do break down with use and may eventually need to be replaced. And as with any health aid, getting some information about how to use a foam roller is a good idea.
Practitioners that Mitchell describes as “body workers” — think physical therapist or massage therapist, for example — use and recommend foam rollers, she says. And besides the clinics at FootZone, the studio Bend Pilates is another Central Oregon location that offers foam-roller instruction.
Do keep in mind that a foam roller is not a miracle worker. It is one of a number of tools, however, that might be able to help overcome an injury. Mitchell recommends what she describes as cumulative practice.
“Just doing it once doesn't solve it,” she says. “Doing it more often will keep those patterns from re-establishing themselves, but it takes a while to peel them back.”
“It is not a panacea,” Mitchell says. “It will not immediately solve your problems, but you will release tension.”
Michelle White, a manager at Fleet Feet shoe store in Bend, is another foam-roller devotee. She says she uses hers after getting out of bed in the morning and after she goes running.
White, 38, started competing in triathlons a couple of years ago. But she missed the 2012 racing season after hyperextending one of her knees earlier this year, which led to problems with her iliotibial band, a band of tissue that runs along the outside of the leg.
After not being able to run at all, White is back to running a couple of miles up to several days a week, slow and steady progress aided by her foam roller.
“I do definitely notice a difference,” White says. “If I haven't done it in a while for some reason, then I get really tight again and things start going the other direction.”
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