As a massage therapist I get a lot of questions about how/when/why to foam roll, so lets go ahead and cover those questions. Foam rolling is meant to mimic a deep tissue massage, and yet most of the people teaching people to foam roll have zero training in massage techniques, let alone deep tissue massage. I’m horrified when I see some of the things people are doing with a foam roller– hopefully after this post you won’t be one of those people.
Rule #1 of deep tissue massage: The deeper you go, the slower you go.
I see people applying all their possible body weight into blasting their IT bands while they grimace in pain. The fact that it’s painful should be your first hint that something isn’t right. “No Pain, No Gain” doesn’t apply in this situation. Rolling out might be uncomfortable at times, but it should never be so bad that you’re holding your breath, or your muscles are tightening up in response. I recommend moving about an inch at a time and then holding for about 5-10 seconds on those tender spots you find. Especially if those spots send a burning or a slight pain to other areas, ex. down your leg, up into your head.
Rule #2: When working deep, only roll towards your heart.
That means if you’re rolling out your hamstrings you should only apply deep pressure as you move from your knee up to your glutes. Why? Because your veins have little valves that prevent blood from falling back down your vessel. As blood is pushed through the vessel the valve opens to allow the blood to move through, then closes to keep gravity from pulling it back down. When you apply pressure against that flow of the blood, you can rupture those valves which can lead to varicose veins and blood pooling. With your arms and legs just remember to roll from hands/feet towards your trunk. Rolling on your back or sides doesn’t matter because the valves aren’t as prominent. Avoid rolling on the back of your knees and the inner elbow though since they are “endangerment sites,” which are areas that the vessels and nerves aren’t as protected by musculature.
Rule #3: No deep pressure after you’ve worked out.
Do your warm-up then roll. After you’ve worked out your muscles are damaged and they’re full of blood. Deep work would further damage the muscles and possibly the blood vessels. Massage therapists never do deep work after a workout or sporting event, if they do they have not been adequately trained in Sports Massage. Doing a light roll to help “flush out” the muscles is just fine, it even feels good. Just don’t do deep/corrective work.
*** If you have any of the following conditions please speak with your physician before foam rolling ***
- If you are pregnant
- Any kind of Autoimmune disorder
- High Blood Pressure
- Inflammatory Disease
- A recent injury that is still inflamed
- Varicose veins
Do roll out. It is very beneficial, especially if you are very active. It is a great way to supplement your massage therapy sessions. Everyone has tight muscles somewhere that are affecting your posture, gait patterns, and strength output. If you’re a runner, your IT band is probably tight, along with your Gluteus Medius and possibly your hamstrings. If you’re an office worker your whole posterior chain is probably tight.
Do roll out multiple times a week. Think of it like stretching, if you stretch once a week you probably aren’t getting much benefit from it. You can over-do it though too. Roll out one day and then let it rest a day or two.
If you haven’t tried foam rolling, you are missing out on a very beneficial modality. It doesn’t matter if you’re a weightlifter, marathon runner, mother, or office manager. If you have some kind of pain, you could be pain free if the cause is muscular. If you need help figuring out what muscles to roll out seek out a professional- a physical therapist or a massage therapist who specializes in structural bodywork. Sometimes all it takes is one look at your posture, or for you to point to where the pain is. I can then guide you through a rolling routine and make sure you’re doing it safely and effectively.
Featured image courtesy of Naoto Sato and used under a CC BY-NC-SA license.