Mention the words “foam roller” to a group of cyclists and the response will likely be as polarizing as a discussion on Lance. Some swear by their rollers, using them daily to dig into every ache and pain, while others place the torturous device in the same category as “hill repeats” and “saddle sores.” But does a roller really live up to the hype? Can a piece of foam replace a trip to the massage table?
For starters, let’s dig in to some of the science behind massage. We’re so accustomed to talking about muscles, how tight or tense they are, but the root of our discomfort often lies in the fascia. Fascia surrounds all of our internal organs and muscles, right down to the nerves and blood vessels. It’s a major player in every move you make and the cycling injuries you’ve suffered from. Fascial lines run through your body and like a pull in the thread of a sweater, just one tight area or restriction can effect a widespread one, causing pain and restricted blood flow. Yes, that headache could actually be coming from an imbalance in your foot or knee. Fascial restrictions can be caused by repetitive actions, injury, poor posture or even stress. Things like stretching, massage, moving frequently and proper daily hydration are all important tools for maintaining healthy fascia.
Foam rolling vs. massage
When it comes to performing myofascial release, nothing beats the trained hands of a massage therapist, who is guided by feel and knows how to apply the appropriate amount of pressure to the tissue. The next best thing is to perform self-myofascial release by using your own thumbs, fists and forearms to feel for and release tension and trigger points. A tennis ball is also quite effective.
Keep in mind that a massage therapist will also identify and treat the root cause of the pain or muscle restriction. Pain is often felt in one area, but originates somewhere else. This is why you can roll on a tight IT band all day, but it’s not until you release the glute max and TFL, that you will likely feel a real sense of relief.
How to roll
Foam rollers come in various shapes and sizes. Some are grooved to provide deeper pressure, while others are made of a squishier foam, which I would recommend for beginners. While they can become softer over time, unlike rollers made with a plastic shell, they’re still less painful on tight muscles.
With a little creativity, you can hit most muscles with a foam roller. You can roll on the major leg muscles and hip flexors and roll up the back along the sides of the spine and to the traps or even on tight arms. This slideshow from Bicycling Magazine shows how to target the major cycling muscles.
A word on pain
One of the major concerns I have with foam rollers is that it’s difficult to control the pressure. In foam rolling, as in all massage, it’s important to start with a light pressure and gradually work deeper as the muscle allows. Many people start out too deep and find themselves in more pain, which usually leads to their foam roller collecting dust. Fascia is a wet, viscous substance that’s tough and resists firm pressure. Like the stretch reflex, its goal is to protect your muscles from damage. Come at it too hard or too fast and it will quickly tense up. If you persist, gritting your teeth, you’ll likely cause more pain and inflammation than you started with. Instead, try to roll when your muscles are warm, either right after exercise or a hot shower and start with light, slow strokes, working one muscle group at a time and easing off before you hit a joint. As the fascia warms and melts, it will invite deeper pressure, but you must be patient (and yes, it’s difficult to feel this release through a hunk of foam). Remember to breathe deeply, never holding your breath. If you feel your body resisting at any time, you’ve gone too deep and need to back off.
The bottom line
If a foam roller aids in your recovery or just feels good after a long ride, then by all means continue to do it. But try to see it as just one tool in an arsenal that includes stretching, hydration, functional strength training and professional massage, when possible. Use the foam roller to help provide feedback to identify what’s tight, sore or may be the beginning of an injury, but pay close attention to the pressure you’re applying to ensure you’re not doing more harm than good.