How to Use a Foam Roller 101 (and let the good times roll!)

Want back pain to stop you from training? No, I didn't think so!

Want back pain to stop you from training?


Let’s start at the very beginning. A very good place to start…

Ok, so the lyrics to a song from The Sound of Music is a strange place to start.

But self myofascial release (or SMR) is a very effective tool that almost everyone can use to create instantaneous change in your body.

Learning how to use a foam roller or even a tennis ball for as little as 5 minutes a day can help you to get rid of any sore or tight spots in your body which cause pain, discomfort and can eventually lead to injury.

How does foam rolling help me? 

Everyone has trigger points.

Trigger points are the sore or tight spots in your body and indicate places where tension or stress is being stored by the muscles and/or fascia (called myofascia) in your body.

These trigger points limit how much the myofascia can stretch, contract and move – in effect, they restrict proper movement of your muscles and joints.  This can ultimately lead to discomfort and pain and create changes in your posture, movement patterns and even injury.

SMR can help you to release the trigger points, decreasing the pain and discomfort associated with them and restoring proper and free movement of the tissue.

So how does foam rolling work?

The sore or tight spot you feel is essentially a micro-spasm in the myofascia.

When you apply external pressure to the sore or tight spot through SMR, the nervous system gets alerted to the problem and basically sends an ‘override’ message to the trigger point, telling it to relax and ‘let go’ of the stress and tension.

You will often feel the result of this ‘override’ message through either a decrease in pain or discomfort at the site of the trigger point or you will feel the muscle ‘release’ and soften.

What tools can I use?

There are lots of SMR tools on the market these days. Some are good. Others are not.

I personally use and recommend the GRID foam roller for the reasons I mentioned in this post: 4 Reasons You Should Use a GRID Instead of a Foam Roller.

A pool noodle can work. However as they are softer than a foam roller, they tend to break down from constant use faster.

Tennis, golf  and even softballs also work well.

Just bear in mind the harder the ‘tool’ is, the more discomfort and pain you are likely to experience.

If you haven’t done SMR before, you might like to start with a (soft) pool noodle and perhaps use a tennis ball for the spots which are less tender or harder to get to.

How to use a foam roller?  

This question might seem obvious but there are a few key points to remember. The most important is this ~

A foam roller isn’t a rolling pin. You aren’t rolling out pastry ~ @SpartaJen (Click to Tweet)

It is easy to do. Simply –

(1). Place your SMR tool of choice into the sore or tight spot.

Use furniture or pillows to support your body so you are in a comfortable position.

If the trigger point is in your calf, position your back against a chair or wall for support.

Use pillows to support yourself if you are trying SMR on your back or shoulder.

Now SMR can be uncomfortable (and sometimes even painful) so this is an important point.

On a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being no discomfort and 10 being extreme pain), you want to experience about a 7.

If you are experiencing too much discomfort or pain, change your body position and/or use furniture or pillows to support yourself so that you put less weight or pressure on the sore spot. For example, if the trigger point is in your back, try SMR while standing up & leaning against a wall rather than lying down on the floor.

(2)  Hold the position for about 30 to 90 seconds remembering to breathe.

If there is a lot of tension in the spot, it can be very uncomfortable so most people tend to hold their breathe.

(3)   Once the pain or discomfort eases from a 7 down to a 3 to 4, move the SMR tool around to see if you can find another trigger point. Often you will find others in close proximity.

If you haven’t experienced a decrease in discomfort within 90 seconds, don’t be discouraged.

Move the foam roller around & try to find another spot.

When should I use a foam roller? 

Whenever you have the time – day or night.

SMR for 5 minutes every day can produce significant change in the way your body functions and moves.

If your time is limited, try SMR for 5 minutes at the end of a stressful day or after a training session.

SMR can also be used as part of a warm up before a training session.

Rolling a foam roller or pool noodle slowly over a body part, covering 2 to 5 cms per second, is a great way to warm the tissue up, release any pre-existing tension and get your body ready for the training session ahead.

It is not necessary to do your whole body every time you do SMR.

Pick a part of your body which is feeling sore or tight or a part you have been using in your training or exercising. For example, your back will love SMR after a long day at work. Do your calves before or after a run. Cyclists can try SMR on their quadriceps before or after a ride (note: this area can be REALLY tight and sore!)

A word of warning

Keep away from your spine when doing SMR.

Also there are some medical conditions for which SMR is not appropriate without medical clearance. If you have osteoporosis/osteopenia, acute rheumatoid arthritis, blood clotting or blood clotting medication, open wounds, healing fractures or advanced diabetes, please do not use SMR without first speaking with your doctor.

Your turn..

We will be exploring SMR more in the coming weeks. In the meantime please share any experience you have with SMR:

  • Have you used SMR before?
  • Did you find it effective?
  • What parts of your body do you use it on? On what parts has it been most effective?
  • When and how often do you use it?

Thanks for dropping by!

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