So How Do I Use A Foam Roller, Anyway?

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Foam rollers work by placing the affected body part on top, and then using your body weight and gravity to apply pressure through the soft tissue. They are generally more effective for muscle groups on the back side of the legs, but can also be used on the quadriceps in the thigh or the small muscles alongside the shin. Used frequently, rollers also provide a gentle upper body workout, because you are constantly propping yourself on hands or elbows with varying amounts of force to control the degree of pressure in the legs.

Key Guidelines For Safe And Successful Rolling

Stay within your pain threshold. Foam rolling causes discomfort in the targeted tissue – and while a little bit of pain is good, getting too masochistic can actually cause more damage. Start out gently, and apply more body weight pressure only as you can tolerate it.

Roll the entire length of tissue you are targeting, even if your soreness is in a small area. For the lower legs, a good guideline is to roll from the joint below the sore spot to the joint above it. Rolling the whole tissue ensures that you hit the full range of tight fibers; if you only focus on one spot, you might end up simply pushing the knot to a different area of the tissue.

Spend more time going back and forth across any particularly painful or stiff areas – 30 to 60 seconds is ideal – before continuing to roll the rest of the tissue.

Stretch the targeted muscles after foam rolling.

You can target some commonly tight areas with a foam roller by doing the following:

Soleus

This is the central, deeper muscle below the larger medial and lateral calf muscles. From a seated position with your legs straight, prop one leg on the roller just above the heel, and slowly roll your way up to the knee joint while keeping your toes pointed upright. For more pressure, you can cross your non-rolling leg on top of the one being rolled.

Gastrocnemius

The large muscles of the calf are aligned slightly to either side of the lower leg midline – so to target these, copy the soleus stretch but rotate your toes slightly outward or inward while rolling.

Hamstrings

Sit with one leg resting on the roller right at the knee joint and your other leg bent at the knee with your foot resting on the ground. Place your palms on the floor behind you. Push with your arms and your grounded foot to slowly roll upward from the knee to the buttocks.

Gluteus And Piriformis

Sit with both hips on top of the roller and your palms on the ground behind you. Cross one foot over the opposite knee, and rotate your hips about halfway towards the side that is still on the roller – for example, if you lift your right foot up, roll to the left. Use your arms and torso muscles to roll the large muscle groups. Experiment with different degrees of hip rotation to target different areas of the muscle.

Iliotibial Band

Prop yourself in a sideways plank position, resting on one elbow and with the foam roller under your hip. Bend and rotate your top knee so the foot rests on the ground. Roll downward, all the way toward the knee, using your arms and top leg to maneuver.

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About Author

Donald is a physical therapist, California native, barefoot aficionado, and father of three with more than 25 years of experience in endurance sports. He was a collegiate rower at UCLA, then dabbled in marathons and Ironman-distance triathlons before falling in love with ultras in the early 2000s. His favorite locations to run include Marin County, CA, and the Sierra Nevada mountains, and he loves exploring America's National Parks. When he's not training for ultramarathons, he enjoys hiking or slacklining with his family in Monterey County, CA.

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