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No time or budget for a regular sports massage? Using a foam roller may be an ideal (or maybe even better!) way to improve your fitness gains and reduce your risk of injuries. Rollers are relatively cheap (most range from about $10 to $50, depending on their features) and readily available at just about every gym. Plus, it doesn’t take long to get the job done—or to see an effect on your body.
Regardless of your fitness level, almost everyone who is in good health can benefit from rolling out regularly, says Steve Barrett, a personal trainer and author of Total Foam Rolling Techniques. Whether it’s from hard training or simply spending too much time sitting around, congestion can form around your skeletal tissue, he explains. “Rolling breaks up some of these blockages, helping the muscles and surrounding fascia to become more malleable and pliable,” Barrett says. “Plus, it improves your posture, the way you feel, and the way you move.”
And while it might not improve your one-rep max, rolling is crucial to keeping your training on track. “When you strength train regularly, if you don’t also do something to maintain flexibility and mobility it’s kind of a vicious circle,” says Barrett. “You get stronger, but you lose range of motion. And if you can’t use full range of motion, you can’t use the muscles you’ve developed.”
In fact, the more you train, the more you should roll. While most people will see benefits from rolling first thing in the morning or while watching TV at night, serious athletes may need to do it up to three to five times a day for max benefits. Ideally, plan to roll before a workout for improved range of motion or after for faster recovery. “If you do a huge amount of activity, you have the potential to create a huge amount of congestion,” says Barrett. The one caveat: The effects are fleeting, so you have to roll regularly if you want to continue to see benefits. And doing it daily—or as close to it as you can—is key to maintaining the effects.
Increasingly, research supports foam rolling’s benefits. One recent study found foam rolling the quads five times a week led to increased range of motion during lunges done immediately after rolling. While this doesn’t necessarily translate to better performance, the increased range of motion carries over to activities where you have to move, run, jump, and bend, says lead researcher Jennifer Bushell, an athletic trainer at the University of Ottawa in Canada. Meanwhile, a 2015 research review in the journal Current Sports Medicine Reports looked at nine different randomized controlled trials on foam rolling and found that in addition to increasing range of motion, rolling also decreased post-workout soreness and fatigue. And that may mean a better workout tomorrow.
1. Go Slow
For the biggest effects, roll slowly along the enitre length of the muscle to allow it to respond-at least 60-90 seconds, says Bushell. That’s five or six slow rolls, one or two fast ones.
2. Release Your Triggers
If you find a hot spot midroll, stop and roll back and forth over the area until it relaxes. The most common tight spots for women are in the chest (pecs), lower glutes (piriformis), thigh (hip flexors), outer thigh (IT band), and lower leg (calf).
3. Stick With It
It took a week of steady roller for the subjects in a recent study to see benefits. An “ouch” is normal for a few sessions before your body adapts. “I don’t think anybody thinks it feels amazing at first,” says Barret. “But its no different from your first spin class. After the fifth class you think,’Whats all the fuss?’“
4. Use Your Body Weight
Manually pressing the roller over your body won’t provide enough pressure to release the muscle fibers.
5. Know What Not To Roll
Keep away from bony areas like the knees and anything thats an acute traumatic injury, like a bruise or a tear.
When foam first rolled onto the market in the ’80s, your choices were fairly limited—length and (maybe) color. Today, there are a lot more options. A few considerations to keep in mind:
Choose the firmest density you can tolerate. Beginners may prefer a softer roller, which is typically one made from a high-density foam. The next hardest is EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate), which looks more like rubber or vinyl; then a pipe roller, which is a solid pipe wrapped in EVA foam.
Beware: Go too soft and the roller won’t provide enough pressure for you to fully benefit, says Bushell.
Rollers range from smooth foam to significant peaks and valleys. Not only are the most ruggedly spiked rollers not for the faint of heart, but research suggests that no extra benefit comes with that extra pain. Stick to a smooth or lightly textured roller, especially when you’re first starting out.
Either long (usually three feet) or short (one foot) rollers can be used for virtually any exercise, but some people find longer ones easier to use on certain body parts (like the upper back), while shorter ones can be easier to get into tighter spots (like the inner thigh).