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Roll Your Pains Away - The Benefits of Foam Rollers

Published: 25 June 2014 - Fitness and Training, Injury Treatment and Prevention

You might have seen people using them at the gym in the stretching area, or near the yoga mats at the sports store, and that’s because foam rollers are quickly becoming the weapon of choice when it comes to fighting muscle soreness and increasing your flexibility.

These little blocks of cylindrical, brightly coloured foam, are actually one of your greatest allies.

So where did they come from?

Traditional stretching has been debated in recent years as a potential cause of soft tissue injury (especially if it’s done just prior to sport or recreational exercise).

An alternative to stretching is using a foam roller to relax and release tension in your muscles.

In technical terms, foam roller exercises are doing what’s known as “self myo-fascial release” commonly referred to as “trigger point release”.

Foam rollers offer a safe way to break down soft tissue adhesions and scar tissue formed from previous injuries. This form of therapy has become very popular at the elite sports level (including the AFL).

This benefits not only the muscles in your body, but also the fascia (connective tissue) that surrounds muscles, helping your muscles to transmit both force and movement to other muscles and parts of your body, allowing you to move more efficiently.

Similar to muscles, fascia can become restricted, tense or form soft tissue adhesions which can result in pain and restricted movement.

Foam rollers work to release the fascia through a process called “autogenic inhibition” - a sudden relaxation of muscle under high tension.

How do foam rollers work?

In your muscle-tendon junction there is a little receptor called a Golgi Tendon Organ (GTO) that detects changes in muscle tension.

Whenever you contract a muscle, the GTO is activated. With the use of foam rollers you can replicate this muscle tension which in turn causes the GTO to relax your muscle.

It is important to note that in addition to providing a slight stretch, this self myo-fascial release also helps to adjust the tone of your muscle too!

Using your foam roller consistently leads to reduction in pain and tightness as well as providing improvements in your flexibility over the long term. It’s like bringing a physio home with you!

How to use a foam roller?

This all sounds great but how do you use a foam roller?

Good news – using a foam roller is quite simple! If we take the calves as an example, simply place the foam roller in a horizontal position under your calves and support your body weight by using your hands.

With your weight supported, roll your calf over the foam roller.

Chances are you will find some spots that are quite tender that might need a little extra work. At these points you can either apply a little more body weight to your calves by bearing down or you can place one leg on top of the other to increase the tension applied.

Hold until the tender spots ease (handy tip: if it’s your first time using a foam roller, ease your way into adding the extra weight). It is recommended that you work your way from the top to the bottom of the muscle slowly using shorter rolls.

Loosen up the top half and then move onto the bottom half.

You can then use this same process with other muscles in your body, by using your bodyweight to create tension and your arms to support yourself and adjust the pressure.

Over time and with consistent use, your muscles and fascia will become more pliable. Even after you manage to get rid of all those tender spots, regular use of your foam roller is important to keep your muscles feeling like a million dollars!

Ask your Back In Motion Physio for instructions and tips on using a foam roller for your body's benefit.

Co-authored by:
Darren Kreymborg - Physiotherapist and Daniel Lee - Physiotherapist and Director at Back In Motion Semaphore