If you’ve been training hard regularly, you may have noticed soreness and muscle tweaks after a while that sort of persist after your routine cool-down stretches. To recover from them, you may give yourself a couple extra days of rest or get a deep muscle tissue massage to work out the kinks.
Luckily, though, there’s ways to work on those problem areas without having to spend $100+ on a regular basis.
Whether you’re training for an obstacle race like the Tough Mudder/Spartan Race, a traditional 10k run, or your first ever race, your training will benefit from foam rolling.
There may already be several aspects of your current training program to make sure your race goes well: your actual running program, resistance training, nutrition, and flexibility.
There are several types of flexibility (allude to series), but one type that’s gotten more attention over the past few years is foam rolling, also known as self-myofascial release.
How Foam Rolling Works
Self-myofascial release allows you to massage the fascia that organizes muscle fibers. When a muscle is very tight, the tissue (fascia) that organize the muscle fibers coil up into a tight, densely compact network. Foam rolling works similar to a deep muscle tissue massage as they both help uncoil the fascia surrounding a tight muscle.
To make a long story short, the loosening up the fascia will help make the corresponding muscle fibers and groups more limber. So you’ll be able to efficiently warm-up and perform exercises through a complete range of motion. In the long run, you’ll get more out of your workouts without having to contend with tightness and tweaks here and there. At the same time help, you’ll be working on injury prevention.
And let’s face it, when your training for an obstacle race or other running event, the last thing you want to hold you back is a missing link in your training!
How To Foam Roll
So how do you foam roll?
Well, first of all, you’ll need a foam roller. And you’ll see reviews of popular ones below.
The precise instructions will vary depending on the muscle. In general, you’ll usually start by resting most (sometimes all, if you are very flexible) of your weight on a specific muscle group on the foam roller (see pictures on “What To Foam Roll” section below). You’ll start to apply pressure close to the muscle’s insertion and roll the length of the muscle.
So if you are foam rolling your calves, you’ll start right above your Achilles and work your way up towards the back of your knee. On the way there, you’ll stop and hold any tender spots until they release, which can take anywhere from 10-30 seconds. If your arms get tired of holding up your weight for that long, it’s okay to take break!
What To Foam Roll
If you’re a runner or a Tough Mudder, chances are you’ll have to foam roll focusing on the legs.
Description: (Start) Sit up with your legs straight. Cross your right ankle over your left ankle and rest you’re the bottom half of your calf muscle (right above the Achilles) against the foam roller. (Move) Roll the length of your calf muscle from above the Achilles to a few inches below the back of your right knee. Hold each tender spot for 20 seconds. Repeat on other side.
Description: (Start) Sit on the foam roller with both knees bent. Cross your right ankle over your left knee and lean towards your right glute cheek. (Move) Roll the length of the glute cheek, looking for tender spots. Hold each tender spot for 20 seconds. Repeat on other side.
Description: (Start) Lie face down and rest weight on your right quad. (Move) Roll the length of the quad muscle starting from one or two inches above the right knee. Hold each tender spot for 20 seconds.
Description: (Start) Lie down on your right side so that the foam roller is one inch above the outside of your right knee. (Move) Roll the length of the IT Bands/Abductors from one inch above the outside of your right knee to one inch below the hip bone. Hold each tender spot for 20 seconds. Repeat on other side.
Description: (Start) Lie face down in a bent elbow plank position with the foam roller parallel to your body. Bend your right leg in towards your hip and out so that the inside of your right knee is resting on the foam roller. (Move) Roll the length of the Adductors from one inch inside your right knee towards the groin area. Hold each tender spot for 20 seconds. Repeat on other side.
When To Roll
Some people foam roll as part of the warm-up, some leave it for the cool-down. The important thing is that you do it!
At first, try it as part of your warm-up. Do some light cardio or calisthenics for five minutes and see how it feels to foam roll after. If you’re really tight, it may be painful. And if that’s the case, it may be best to leave towards the end of your workout when your muscles are warmest and looser so you can hold the tender points longer.
You can include foam rolling for each of your workouts. I also recommend having a longer foam rolling session once every week or two when you’re at the heart of your training and likely to tighten up more easily. You can integrate an extended foam rolling session as part of your active recovery.
Where To Get a Foam Roller
You’ll probably find a foam roller at a local sporting goods store. It will more likely be a soft white foam roller that may be good enough for beginners, but won’t last you very long.
Since foam rollers made their way to mainstream fitness years ago, many variations have developed from the soft roller. You could say these are evolutions of the original — rebooted and improved.
Some sporting goods stores may have types aside from the soft roller, but you are more likely to find them online or through Amazon and specialty retail stores that target personal trainers (like Perfom Better). You’ll have a lot of online options through either vendors.
Types of Foam Roller – A Quick Review
When I started out as a trainer, I was quickly introduced to foam rollers. So I’ve had the chance to try out a few different types. The ones I’ll review below are rollers I’ve personally used and been able to rank based on my experience. They’re also linked to their product pages on Amazon in case you are thinking of purchasing one.
For a really quick review, scroll down to a grid where I rank each of the five foam rollers listed by durability, material, resilience, and price.
At first, most clubs had soft foam rollers in two varieties: the soft foam and foam roller plus.
1. The Soft Foam Roller
This variety was the original: a cylindrical roller you could use for self-myofascial release.
- Good for beginners. Since it’s a soft foam, it may not be as painful as some of the more advanced/upgraded/refined foam rollers out there. This may be a welcome start if you are new to foam rollers and typically have tight muscle groups.
- Inexpensive. This is probably the least expensive roller on the market. So if you’re a little skeptical as to the utility of the roller, this may be a good option to start with. You can buy a soft foam roller for less than $20, some for even $10.
- Short life span. The soft foam roll is not as resilient as other options. After resting your body weight on it for some time, which you’ll have to do in order to foam roll, the roll will lose it’s shape and thus, its effectiveness.
- Gets dirty easily and can be hard to clean. This is a white roller, and it can pick up and cling to nearly anything: dirt, dust, lint, hair, etc.
My verdict: the soft roller is good for the reluctant beginner, but if you think you’re sold on the foam roller’s utility, read on for other alternatives.
2. The Soft Foam Roller Wrapping a PVC Pipe (aka Foam Roller Plus)
This particular packaging of the soft foam was intended to lengthen the lifespan of the make the foam last longer. After a while of using the roller, the foam loses it’s resilience to retain its original shape, rendering it ineffective in massaging your tight muscles. The pipe was integrated into this product to make the foam last longer.
In theory, sounds like a good idea, right? Well, over time, as the soft foam loses it’s shape, you’ll eventually feel like you’re rolling on a pipe! If you’re the only one using the roller at home, this may not be a problem, but if you’re looking to share the roller with other home exercisers or using at the health club, there are better option so use.
- Durable. The pipe helps make the roll last longer.
- Somewhat resilient. The pipe soft of helps the foam roll maintain it shape and form.
- Easy to clean. The sleeve over the pipe and roller keeps the foam clean and can be washed with your laundry.
- Once soft foam loses shape, it feels like you are rolling on a pipe. This is just uncomfortable and not effective for myofascial release.
- More expensive. You can pay as much as 3-4x the cost of the soft foam roller alone.
My verdict: even though the foam roller plus may provide you with more value than the soft foam alone, there are other varieties worth considering, especially if you plan to share the roller with other home exercisers.
The EVA foam roller is made from elastic material that is more resilient than the soft foam roller. It will last longer than the soft foam roller, but you may need to invest a little more for this variety.
- Durable. The EVA foam roller will last longer than the soft type. It’s elastic properties make it resilient, lending to a longer lifespan where it will provide more pressure than the soft foam.
- Softer than the foam roller plus. The EVA foam is durable so that the roller still is usable without making you feel like you are rolling on a pipe.
- Heat & water resistant. EVA is heat & water resistant, enhancing the longevity of the roller.
- More expensive than the soft foam. An EVA Foam can cost up to 3-3.5x more than the soft foam, but can often be found for a few dollars less than the foam roller plus.
- Maybe too firm? If you are a beginner with really tense and tender muscles, the pressure the EVA foam can afford may be too much. If this is the case, you may be better off with the soft foam or start with traditional stretching if there is an underlying medical or health issue. Check with your doctor if this is the case.
My verdict: I prefer this one for exercisers that aren’t too tight and tense. They EVA roll will provide better massage than the soft rollers without being as painful as the Foam Roller Plus or High Density Foam Roller.
4. High Density Foam Roller
High Density foam is foam packed very tightly together, making it capable of applying a lot of pressure. This can be an advantage or disadvantage, depending on how tight and tense you are.
- Very firm. This may be the most inherently firm foam that I know of. When you first use this foam roller, it will feel like it resists any kind of pressure you place on it. Unlike the EVA foam, it doesn’t need to be resilient because it’s tough enough to resist any alterations in shape and form.
- Durable. This is one of the more durable foam roller varieties. It will last you longer than the soft foam roll, and possibly longer than the EVA roller.
- Price. A high density foam roller alone can be found for less than an EVA foam or the foam roller plus. You can expect to pay about twice as much as the amount you would pay for a soft foam.
- Not as elastic as EVA. But it doesn’t have to be since the high density foam resists applied pressure.
- Maybe too inelastic for beginners. If you’re really tight or using the foam roller for the first time, using this roller may actually feel painful.
- Not as durable as EVA? This is what I’ve heard. This may sound counterintuitive at first: if the high density can resist any changes in form, then they should be durable, right? Maybe since it lacks the EVA material, the high density roller is not heat or water-resistant, thus affecting it’s lifespan. But unless you keep this next to a radiator or submerged in a pool, the HD foam may outlast the EVA.
My verdict: this one isn’t for the faint-hearted. This is no forgiving foam roller, it will not give like the soft or EVA types. I recommend this for more advanced exercises with experience foam rolling.
Guess what? There is a variety that combines the best of EVA and HD! The pros and cons for this one are pretty simple and straightforward.
Pro: provides the best of both EVA and HD materials. It’s resilient, durable, has a little give, provides an intense, but manageable massage for most, and is heat & water-resistant.
Con: EVA HD rollers can vary in pricing. You can find some comparably priced to an HD roller or more expensive than the Foam Roller Plus.
My verdict: this EVA HD roller is my pick for the long haul. It can be good for beginners, intermediate, and advanced exercises, and should last you a long time.
You’ll notice many foam rollers, with the exception of the foam roller plus, come in different lengths and sizes. For overall home use, you want to stick with the 3-foot whole roller. Half rollers are usually used for other balance and flexibility exercises. The 18-inch roller is usually intended for travel.
The grid below compares the foam rollers by material, firmness, durability, and pricing using an ascending scale. 1 represents least firm, durable, and expensive; 5 denotes most firm, durable, and expensive.
Foam Rollers’ Review Summary
|FR+||5||Soft Foam + Pipe||2||2||4|
|HD EVA||1||HD EVA Foam||5||5||5|
For more information on foam rollers, check out foamrollerguide.com.
So what foam roller are you? I know this was an extensive post, but foam rolling deserves some attention as it will enhance your flexibility.
In the long run, this will help you prevent injuries and even boost your fitness and sports performance. And it only takes a few minutes of your warm-up or cool-down.
Personally, I’ve noticed the difference of foam rolling regularly on improved flexibility around my IT bands/abductors and adductors. Foam rolling has helped me keep those muscle groups loose and keep knee pain at bay after a run.
Best of luck with your training and recovery!
© 2009-2015 Melissa Rodriguez
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