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Foam Rolling: Fitness Miracle or Fad?

Posted Nov 10 2010 7:16pm
Hmm, yes, the rolling pin was the tip-off that shenanigans were about to ensue. "Something bad was going to go down" indeed!

"Hurts so good!" "Absolute must-do!" "MIRACULOUS!!" It was that last one that got me and not just because it turned exercise into a religious experience on par with seeing the Virgin Mary in a pancake. For all my professed cynicism (not really, I'm like an eager puppy), I'm as interested in the next fitness "miracle" as the next girl. Twitter schooled me today. As is often the case with me in social mediums I don't understand, I was randomly eavesdropping on other people's conversations and came across several people singing the above praises of the foam roller. Personal Trainer Deb Roby even tweeted, "I teach all my clients to foam roll before a workout," adding that it is "magical*." Magical! Yes, this thing:



My first reaction was, "Really?!?" We have used foam rollers before, both in stretching and in actual workouts. The Gym Buddies and I even dedicated an entire month during the Core Performance for Women Great Fitness Experiment to getting intimate with this cheap piece of plastic (made even more awkward by the fact that our Y only has one roller basically making all of us sloppy seconds.) We were, to a woman, unimpressed. The tennis ball produced more of a good massage and muscle release although Gym Buddy Megan broke my heart and refused to share hers. Did I mention I love the tennis ball to get deep into my glutes ( a la the piriformis-beleaguered MizFit )? It's probably all for the best we did not share the butt ball.

My second reaction to all the hype was, "Clearly I'm doing it wrong." After all, all those Twitter folks are way smarter than I am. (And I'm not being facetious - they really are a bunch of smart sugar-free flourless protein cookies.) But after watching this video tutorial, from Ryan at No More Bacon , where a girl (whose hair I deeply covet) demonstrates how to use a foam roller , I realized: I've totally been using the foam roller right. And it hasn't done a thing for me. Stymied! By a piece of bike-helmet foam!

What to do? Consult the experts of course! The CrossFit Nor'easter blog commands you to repeat, "“I want to roll everything! Rolling is good! Rolling is our pal!” Which I did. And then snickered. A lot. Because I'm immature like that. They add,
"Foam rollers offer many of the same benefits as a sports massage, without the big price tag. The foam roller not only stretches muscles and tendons but it also breaks down soft tissue adhesions and scar tissue. By using your own body weight and a cylindrical foam roller you can perform a self-massage or myofascial release, break up trigger points, and soothe tight fascia while increasing blood flow and circulation to the soft tissues."
Well, now I see my problem. First, I have never had a sports massage. (Confession: I've never had any massage ever because I have an irrational fear of being naked alone in a room with a stranger. On second thought, that fear seems totally rational.) So I have nothing to compare the beautiful torture of the foam roller with. Second, I have no idea what a myofascial release is. But it certainly sounds like something I would want - especially because then I would only have to get naked with myself! Ahem. The Nor'easters to the rescue again, quoting about.com :

"Myofascial release is a body work technique in which a practitioner uses gentle, sustained pressure on the soft tissues while applying traction to the fascia. This technique results in softening and lengthening (release) of the fascia and breaking down scar tissue or adhesions between skin, muscles and bones. Myofascial release has also been shown to relieve various muscle and joint pains such as IT band syndrome and shin splints as well as improving flexibility and range of motion."
Now I definitely want a piece of that! Google tells me that a fascia is "band of fibrous connective tissue separating or binding together muscles and organs." Obviously you would not want those to get overly tight (except perhaps in the bladder region and then, you know, all of us moms would like them to cinch back up like a paper bag if you please) and I hope I don't have scar tissue either.

Rachel Cosgrove (of this month's Experiment fame) is totally on the foam rolling bandwagon as well. At the end of each workout she instructs us to do "15 minutes of foam rolling" even on off days. We've ignored her advice. First there's the one diseased roller issue (although they're not that expensive so I suppose I could invest in one - marketing opportunity: anyone want to send me one for free? Either that or I could sew a cloth foam-roller condom and instruct the Gym Buddies not to wear shorts.) and second there's the whole disaffected problem. But after today, I am resolved to give the roller a second chance. Especially because I don't want to get to the end of this Experiment and wonder if my results could have been better had I done everything she told me to (which, for the record, I am doing everything else she instructs including drinking a nasty protein shake after my weight workouts, on the stretching mats even!).

The whole reason I didn't think much of the roller in the first place was it never felt like anything. People talk of screaming pain and crying and whatnot and all I got was a little shaky from having to hold myself up on my already-worked out arms for so long. Why don't I feel anything? Should I add weights? Help me to love the roller! - how can I make the foam roller work for me? Do you love the foam roller? Do you use it before or after a workout? Both? What benefits have you seen from it? Do you have to be injured to benefit from it?

*Deb has promised a whole week on her blog of posts dedicated to the wonder of the foam roller. I'm eagerly anticipating this!
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