Cycling and running are repetitive sports. A good cyclist should turn the pedals 90 times in a minute with a good runner’s cadence also being around the 90 mark. In the same way that we maintain our bicycles by regularly lubing our chains, we should be optimising the performance of our bodies by using regular recovery strategies.
The foam roller is a great recovery tool and has become a popular piece of equipment found in most gyms today. It is used to perform self-massage to the muscles and connective tissue of the body, otherwise known as self-myofascial release. In other words it is like having a sports massage, but one that costs a fraction of the price and can be done at your own convenience.
Foam rollers have been around since the late 1980’s but have only gained popularity and accessibility in the early 2000’s. Thus there is not as much research available on foam rolling as there is on other recovery tools such as stretching and massage. So is this modern, self-torture device really worth all the discomfort? We attempt to answer some of your questions below.
Why foam roll?
While cycling, swimming and running certain muscle groups are favoured; this makes them more susceptible to shortening. Being on your aero bars also places the spine into a flexed position often tightening up the spine.
High quality research has shown that foam rolling can be used to increase flexibility, thus can be used to loosen up these overused muscles.
The most exciting results found were that foam rolling can decrease the delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) after an intense bout of exercise. DOMS is the muscular pain and stiffness experienced 24-72 hours after strenuous exercises.
When and how to foam roll?
Unlike static stretching, foam rolling increases flexibility without decreasing muscle performance. This means that foam rollers may be used before or after exercise. After an intense interval or strength session, 10 – 20 minutes of foam rolling can prevent DOMS.
When foam rolling, place as much body weight on the roller as tolerated and roll along the whole length of the muscle. Use your other limbs to support your body weight and slowly increase the pressure on the area you are rolling as tolerated. Be sure to focus on your form while foam rolling, it can be a full body work out. Like any modality if performed incorrectly it can cause more harm than good. Pay special attention to the position of your lower back, neck and shoulders when foam rolling to avoid unnecessary strain to these areas.
How long should I foam roll for?
Research suggests that at least 60 seconds of foam rolling is necessary to see changes in flexibility. The longer the time spent on a muscle, the greater the improvements in flexibility. Therefore we recommend spending at least 1 minute on each muscle group and up to 2 minutes on your tighter areas.
A session of 10 – 20 minutes of foam rolling is recommended after an intense workout to prevent DOMS.
How much should it hurt?
Studies show that the harder the foam roller and the more pressure that is applied to the muscle, the better the resulting flexibility.
Therefore we recommend rolling on a hard foam roller at a pressure that is comfortable for you. Gradually increase the pressure as tolerated. Remember the aim is to massage and release tight muscles; so if you are not feeling anything while using the roller it is unlikely that you are being effective! It is often quite sore the first few times that you roll as your body is not used to it. The more you roll, or the more consistent you are with it, the better it gets. People often become addicted to it because it feels so good despite it being agony when they started.
Our top areas to foam roll for triathletes are the following:
Place the foam roller in the middle of the front of your thighs while you are in a plank position, with your elbows directly below your shoulders and your spine in a straight line. Slowly roll the foam roller from just above your kneecaps to just below your hips. Use your elbows and shoulders to control this movement. Continue this motion slowly for 60 seconds.
Make sure that you watch your form. Keep your tummy muscles activated and don’t allow your lower back to arch. Keep your chin tucked and don’t sink through your shoulders. If you would like to target a specific leg then transfer your weight towards the leg that you are wanting to target.
Iliotibial band and lateral quad :
Lie on your right side in a side plank position, with your elbow directly under your shoulder. Place the foam roller half way between the hip and the knee of your right leg. Make sure that your tummy muscles are active and that the right side of your trunk isn’t sinking towards the ground. Keep your shoulder blade down and away from your ears.
Slowly roll your body along the foam roller making sure you move all the way from just below your hip bone to just above your knee bone. Use the elbow and shoulder to create this movement. If the pressure is too intense or the movement is too difficult, you can cross your left leg over your body and place your left foot on the ground.
Continue this motion slowly for 60 seconds. Repeat on the left side.
Sit on the foam roller with your hands on the ground behind you, your legs bent and feet flat on the floor in front of you. Place your right ankle on your left knee, allowing your right knee to rotate outwards. Place your weight onto the right glut and slowly roll your right glut.
Keep good form by tightening your tummy muscles and keeping your shoulders away from your ears. Continue slowly rolling from your sitting bones to the top of your pelvis for 60 seconds.
You may feel that a tennis ball or a foam ball in this same position may be better to get into those deep glut muscles.
Thoracic Spine/ Upper Back
Lie on your back with your knees bent and the foam roller just under your shoulder blades. Support your head in your hands, keeping your elbows wide. Tuck your tailbone in towards your spine and slowly curl your pelvis and lower back off the floor. Roll your upper back on the foam roller, from the top of your shoulder blades to in line with your bellybutton, using your legs to control this movement. Make sure you don’t arch your lower back.
Continue this motion for 60 seconds.
Sit with your legs straight out in front of you. Place the foam roller under the middle of your calves, crossing your left ankle over your right ankle. Place your hands behind you. Lift your bottom of the ground and roll your calf all the way from your ankle to just below your knee joint. Make sure you keep shoulder blades away from your ears and don’t let your elbows hyperextend.
Continue this motion for 60 seconds and then repeat on your left calf.
If this is initially too painful uncross your ankles and roll both your calves simultaneously.
At Tamsin Hodgson Physiotherapy we pride ourselves in providing the best all round service possible for our clients. We look at our clients holistically, as a unit, and not just as a body part. We are extremely interested in rehabilitation and we strive to diagnose and treat the cause of the problem instead of just the symptoms.
Love for exercise and the outdoors helps us to relate to our more athletic clientele and their injuries, whilst also instilling the need to teach these tools to others through the practice of Pilates, Lower Limb Strength Classes and Gyrokinesis.