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Foam Rolling Essentials Every Athlete Should Know

Dr. Kevin Sherman
November 14, 2016
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Foam rolling is one of the best weapons we have in the war against scar tissue, and using it is simple and fast. Regular use of the roller can go a long way in preventing things like IT band syndrome, shin splints, plantar fasciitis, piriformis syndrome, and chronic inflexibility.

Foam Rolling 101

Any time you over stress a muscle, for any reason, your body produces scar-tissue. Little cells along your muscles, called fibroblasts, produce a meshwork of collagen scar in response to injury or stress.

Over time, this network of scar builds within your tissues until you feel a “knot”. Also called myofascial adhesions, these “knots” are performance killers. Myofascial adhesions not only limit flexibility, they also reduce blood flow and oxygen transport to the tissues, resulting in delayed healing and poor performance.

foam rolling

Regular foam rolling can break up scar tissue adhesions, warm up the body for exercise and aid in recovery.

If you’re wondering how you can slow this process down and start to soften some of these “knots”, then dust off your foam roller and get ready to do battle with some scar tissue.

The following is a simple guide on how to roll the muscles of your lower extremities.

When to Use a Foam Roller

The best time to use the roller is just before a workout. You can use the foam roller as a pre-stretch warm-up or as an alternative to stretching altogether.

For best results, use the roller at least 4 times per week, for short periods, only making 3 to 5 passes over each muscle. Doing more than 5 passes will likely cause injury.

Words of Caution

  • Consult with your doctor or licensed healthcare provider, before using the foam roller.
  • Because of the high risk of rib fracture, rolling on your back/spine is NOT recommended.
  • Never roll over or across a joint, as you could injure sensitive nerves or blood vessels.
  • Bony structures should also be avoided, particularly the bony prominence on the outside of your hip.  Rolling in front of and behind this structure is OK, however.
  • Always roll along the length of a muscle, NEVER across.  In your legs, this means “up and down.”

IT Band

The foam roller is most often used to treat problems along the IT band/quadriceps interface. It is important to always roll your gluteal muscles along with the IT band. The IT band is really just a long tendon of your “glutes.”

Form: The top leg is in front, bottom leg is straight, and both hands are on the ground. If it is too painful, simply use your hands and front foot to lift yourself. If you need more pressure, roll your body forward, slightly, toward the floor.

foam rolling

Foam rolling the IT band.

Caution: Do not roll over the large bony prominence on the side of your hip. Do not roll over the knee.

Perform: 3-5 passes up and down the length of the IT band.

Quadriceps

Roll your body to the side, keeping both thighs in contact with the roller, to more specifically target the “hard spots.”

Form: Both elbows are on the floor, both legs are in contact with the roller, and the torso is straight.

foam rolling

Foam rolling the quads.

Caution: Do not roll over the knee.

Perform: 3-5 passes up and down the length of the muscle.

Gluteal Muscles

Gluteal problems plague athletes from nearly every sport. Rolling this region is essential when treating IT band syndrome and should be part of your normal routine.

Form: The top leg is in back, with the foot on the floor. Both hands are on the floor. You will have to roll your body forward and backward to target the entire region.

foam rolling

Foam rolling the glutes.

Caution: Do not roll this area if you feel tingling or numbness down your leg when rolling over this region.

Perform: 3-5 passes up and down the length of the muscle(s).

Hamstrings

Another essential target for most athletes, the hamstrings need some maneuvering for effective treatment with foam rolling.

Form: Both hands are on the floor, with one leg stacked on top of the other. Target the inside and outside hamstrings individually by turning your body toward the inside, for the medial hamstring, and outside, for the lateral hamstring. Make sure to roll all the way up to just underneath your sit bones.

foam rolling

Foam rolling the hamstrings.

Caution: To minimize stress on the shoulders, roll small sections at a time, keeping the arms vertical and close to the body.

Perform: 3-5 passes up and down the length of the inside and outside muscles.

Adductors

Problems with the adductors can sometimes mimic hamstring and quadriceps problems. Because the adductors are also hip flexors and hip extensors, they tend to work extra hard and should not be missed when using the foam roller.

Form: One leg is off the edge of the roller and the treatment leg is turned toward the inside, targeting the adductor/groin muscles.

foam rolling

Foam rolling the adductors

Caution: To avoid sensitive nerves, blood vessels and tendons near the knee, target only the upper half of the thigh.

Perform: 3-5 passes up and down the length of the muscles.

Calf Muscles

The calf is one of the easiest places to locate those tender, hard “knots” that can hamper performance.

Form: Both hands are on the floor and one leg is stacked upon the other. To effectively roll your calf muscles, you must turn your body slightly toward the inside or outside, targeting one side at a time.

Rolling directly along the middle section is generally ineffective and puts too much pressure on sensitive nerves and vessels. To minimize stress on the shoulders, roll small sections at a time, keeping the arms vertical and close to the body.

foam rolling

Foam rolling the calves

Caution: Do not roll over the back of your knee.

Form: 3-5 passes up and down the length of the muscles.

Medial Calf (Shin Splint Area)

Foam rolling is an excellent tool for treating the symptoms associated with shin splints.

Form: The treatment leg is turned inward and the other leg is stacked on top. Roll only the upper half of the calf along the shin. Rolling along the lower half of the shin will only compress the tendon and cause injury.

foam rolling

Medial calf foam rolling

Caution: Do not roll directly on the bone. Concentrate on the muscles next to the bone.

Perform: 3-5 passes up and down the length of the muscle.

While foam rolling can be an essential tool in the treatment and prevention of many sports injuries, it is not the only tool. The roller should never be used to treat an acute or fresh injury, as it will only cause further damage. Minor aches and pains that do not resolve within 3 to 4 sessions on a roller need to be investigated by a qualified physician or therapist.

Foam rolling is a simple and fun way to treat the common maladies of the modern athlete. It should be part of every athlete’s flexibility routine. Consistent use is key; just a little bit, at least 4 days per week. Fortunately, many running shoe stores, gyms and yoga studios around the country now offer foam roller classes. Check with your local shops.

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