Foam Rolling 101- Self Myofascial Release Techniques for Pain Relief

Foam Rolling

Of all the new fitness techniques and trends that have come across my doorstep over the past 30 years, there is only ONE which I am positive is here to stay. No, it’s not spinning, stepping, Zumba-ing or TRXing. This trend has made a huge difference in my life; reducing chronic pain and stiffness, improving my daily movement, workout recovery and sports performance. I wouldn’t work out without doing it. And yet, when I mention this fitness technique to friends and acquaintances, most people look at me with a blank stare. They’ve never heard of it! Many big box gyms don’t even have the equipment to allow their members to do it. Many of my clients know they should do it, but don’t. This may be because there is no visual affect from this work- but no matter, it is a miracle and you can do it on yourself, with very minimal costs.

The miracle? It’s Self Myofascial Release (SMR), also known as foam rolling, or self-massage. Actually, foam rolling is just 1 type of self-massage. There are all kinds of tools and techniques for releasing muscle and fascial tissue including sticks, canes, balls of all sizes and even metal tools. While some of these tools are best used by physical therapists or other bodyworkers, tools like the “Theracane”, golf, tennis and lacrosse balls and “The Stick” are easily used by average fitness enthusiasts in addition to a foam roller.

Of course, I have always recommended massages with a massage therapist. I’ve been getting a massage every 5 weeks for the last 20 years! But, most of us don’t go frequently enough to keep tissue from tightening back up after the massage. (Many people I know consider massages a luxury, and hence get them infrequently…. error!!) Unfortunately, the effects of massage are not permanent. What do we do to ourselves after the massage that impacts its long term effectiveness? Some of us go right back to sitting all day, causing muscles to shorten and weaken and develop trigger points. Others do heavy exercise or may have existing joint injuries that impact movement. Either way, extreme inactivity or over activity can cause pain and dysfunction quickly after a massage. Thus, SMR work is great to fill in and improve our myofascial health inbetween massages. As an aside, interestingly, I have found that the most flexible people often have the most trigger points, as their overly mobile tissue gets very taxed trying to create stability. These types of clients need lots of core work and strength work to offset the hypermobility and weakness, and flexibility is not a pass for needing massage. Self Myofascial Release is necessary not just for tight muscles, but for tired, weak and triggered muscles as well.

Foam Rollers are a great place to start your SMR work. They come in multiple colors and hardnesses, depending on how sensitive your tissue is. If you touch your calves or lateral thighs and go through the roof with pain, then you may want to start with a lighter pressure roller, usually a white one. I prefer the black roller, which has harder cells. There are also rollers that are closer to PVC pipe hardness, some even have small bumps on them to increase friction. Carefully choose your weapon! Rollers should be 3 feet long, 6 inch round, made with thick styrofoam cells. Don’t get a short roller if you can help it, as there are lots of postural improvement exercises you can do with a full length roller that you can’t do with a short one. If the thought of lying on the floor rolling around is too much for you, consider buying a tool like The Stick ( see photo below) or a Theracane. Some of my clients even use pastry rollers.

SMR tools11

As an intro to SMR techniques, let me take you step by step through a basic foam rolling routine. (I also recommend you check out a You Tube video from Cressey Performance. Google “Cressey Performance Foam Roller Series” for a great tutorial)

Start face down, with the foam roller perpendicular to your body at your mid thighs. Rest on your elbows like in a plank and use your elbows to pull yourself forward and back as you roll along the thighs. Keep your spine straight, not arched. This is a core workout too!
Next, roll slightly to one side, onto the lateral thigh, and get the highly sensitive vastus lateralis and ilio-tibial band. Be gentle! This can be painful. Use long strokes from just above the knee to the hip. Use same side elbow and opposite foot to take weight off the lateral thigh and temper pressure.

Now, roll over and sit down with roller behind your back, placing roller perpendicular to spine at mid/upper back level. Bend knees, hands behind your head. Pushing through feet, lift hips off the floor slightly and roll across roller from low back to upper back, with long strokes, keeping head above hips. Don’t lie all the way back. If you do, this will be super uncomfortable on low back. Be gentle there. Try leaning slightly to one side or the other to get your lateral torso muscles and under the arms near the upper back.

You can then roll the glutes (buttocks) by sitting one cheek on roller and using feet to push yourself back and forth. One hand will remain on ground behind you as you do this. Roll upper glutes, at junction of back and pelvis, as well as lateral glutes and hips. I like to then sit back down, and gently arch my back over the roller (again-with it at mid to upper back) to undo desk posture.

Here, I am arching on a rolled yoga mat. Foam rollers are used the same way.
Here, I am arching on a rolled yoga mat. Foam rollers are used the same way.

Lastly, I lie lengthwise on the roller, with my head on one end, buttocks on other end, knees bent and feet on the floor with the roller vertical on spine and arms out to side, palms up. This is a great postural release, letting gravity open chest muscles which will reduce rounding of the upper back.

I also use sticks and balls of various sizes for other areas of the body. The sticks are great for traveling or to bring to your sporting event to use prior to warming up. I use the balls on my calves and feet, as these areas require more localized work rather than broader work as with a roller. One great SMR technique I highly recommend is using tennis balls placed up against a wall between the wall and your body. Roll and rub your body on the wall, allowing the ball to massage muscles of the spine from the low back up to inbetween and around the shoulder blades. This technique is fabulous for upper back and mid back chronic pain that we can get from excessive sitting, texting and computer work.

The scientific study of fascia and its properties and effects on the body continues. But most high level trainers, massage therapists, physical therapists and strength coaches agree, it is a common source of chronic pain. If you experience chronic joint pain, daily muscle tension or even muscle pain that holds you back from activity and exercise, consider getting a professional massage and using daily SMR techniques before you panic and head off to the orthopedist. Take your pain seriously and bring it back into your control before you even consider more invasive corrections.

If chronic muscular pain is an issue for you, why not put this small amount of time into helping yourself? Aren’t you worth it?