Performance physiologist Bruce Wardrop discusses how you can learn to use a foam roller to optimise your performance leading up to the Waterford Viking Marathon
For 2017, Waterford Viking Marathon has teamed up with the Department of Health, Sport and Exercise Science (DHSES) in Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) to provide expert training information for runners in the lead up to the event.
Foam rollers are a common sight in most gyms and clinics around the country these days – many of you may even have one at home. They are a great tool to help keep you in good shape, but with most people just aimlessly rolling around on top of them, there is clearly a lack of understanding around how or why to use them.
Each of your muscles are made up of individual muscle fibres, grouped together by connective tissue. The layer of connective tissue encapsulating these bundles of fibres and the outer layer of the muscle itself, is called the fascia. Both the muscle fibres and the fascia surrounding them are capable of contracting and occasionally, they can contract so much that a “trigger point” is generated – a knot or sore spot that needs to be released. This is what most people will use a foam roller for - applying pressure to a trigger point in order to release it, relieve discomfort and return normal function to the affected muscle.
However, aside from treating trigger points, foam rollers can also play an important part in your warm up and / or cool down. Used correctly, they can help stretch and loosen out your muscles, improve circulation and prevent injuries.
There are many types of foam roller available to buy, each with their own pros and cons. Solid foam rollers tend to be a little softer than the ones with a hollow plastic core. They offer a more gentle rolling experience, but will lose their shape and need replacing sooner. Similarly, smooth foam rollers offer a more gentle rolling experience, but are less effective at applying pressure to deep trigger points compared to knobbly rollers. Using a foam roller is not exactly pleasant – it should range from generally uncomfortable to a little painful if you hit a trigger point. The style of roller you use will really impact how it feels, so if you are new to foam rolling try out a gentle one at first and progress to a more hard-core style once you are used to it!
Here are my top tips for effective foam rolling during your warm up:
- Roll slowly and deliberately (about one inch per second) along the entire length of the muscle
- It doesn’t matter where you start – just work from one end of the muscle to the other
- Shift your body position to vary the pressure the roller applies
- If you find a tender spot, maintain pressure on the area for 30-60 seconds, then move on
- After rolling, progress to gentle stretching followed by dynamic warm up exercises
- Runners should focus on rolling their calves, upper legs (quads, hamstrings, IT band and adductors), glutes and upper back
- A small ball (e.g. tennis / hockey ball) is a good alternative for the calves and glutes
To treat a knot / trigger point, follow points 1-3 above plus:
- Maintain pressure on the area for a maximum of 2 x 30 seconds repetitions
- Follow this with a gentle, static stretch for the affected muscle
- Roll the surrounding tissue as described above
- Leave it alone – excessive rolling can cause further irritation, bruising or swelling so limit it to one treatment per day