Using a foam roller is advised by physiotherapists, osteopaths and coaches the world over. In fact, we’ve yet to hear a sports injury or performance specialist not recommend the use of one of these cylindrical, pain inducing gadgets.
Foam rolling is a form of self-myofascial release – ‘myo’ referring to muscle and ‘fascia’ being the connective tissue. Myofascial release is the removal of tension, which if left untreated can result in a loss of performance at best and injury at worst.
The ultimate form of this myofascial release involves visiting a professional for a sports massage. An expert will have an intricate knowledge of muscle connectivity and will often be able to pinpoint the source of pain from your symptoms.
Not all of us can afford the time or money involved in making these trips on a regular basis, so the foam roller comes in as a very good second best.
Muscles and fascia carrying a high level of tension don’t always take kindly to foam rolling. The same way sports massages hurts more when your muscles are very sore, the more often you smooth out the knots, the less it hurts.
Though your first foam roller session is likely to prove quite painful, it’s because it’s needed – and if you keep it up on a regular basis then it’ll become less uncomfortable.
How to use a foam roller
If you’re going to release one area, it’s really a very good idea to provide the same treatment elsewhere to ensure you stay well balanced.
If you’re suffering from a specific pain, it’s also important to remember that the bit that hurts isn’t necessarily the cause. Rolling over a sore spot isn’t the answer – instead you often need to release the surrounding area.
The best approach to take is to have a regular routine – it’ll take about 10 minutes, and you should aim to complete the full set once a day, ideally stretching afterwards once your muscles are warm and loosened up.
The routine targets the quads, IT band, abductors, hamstrings, calves, lower back and glutes – key areas that can become tight for cyclists.
“All rolling needs to be done slowly. Sometimes people go up and down like it’s a rolling pin – but that just flushes over the fibres, and doesn’t get into it – this needs to be one long smooth and progressive push through the fibres to add a bit of length into the muscle,” George explains.
Ready to give it a go? We begin…
Often one of the most painful sections for cyclists to foam roll, the quads certainly need it.
For a little additional tip, he adds: “Bending your knees [as you go] will also help as it stretches the muscle each time.”
IT band and abductor
The biggest cause of knee pain is tightness along the IT band, and I’ve lost count of the number of cyclists who have told me they’ve fixed months of frustration with a daily roll along the pesky area.
George gives us the how to: “[The IT band] helps stabilise the hips and knee and can get tight from cycling. Lay on your side over the roller and locate your ITB. It will feel like a solid tube up the side of your knee. Roll slowly up the side of the leg till you get to the hip, using one long slow movement.”
The inside of the thigh (abductors) can also become tight, pulling on the knee, George says: “Lay your leg on it so the inside of your leg is pressing the roller. Roll in one smooth motion from the keen to the groin. This is a knee stabiliser and will help keep the knee mobile and stop the knee and ITB becoming tight.”
It can be a little bit harder to roll out the muscles on the back of the leg than the front, because it’s more difficult to place enough weight here – but it can be done, and it should be: “calves can lose mobility when you cycle so [foam rolling] will help prevent this.”
How to do it? “Sit with the roller in front of you and put your heel on the roller. Cross the other leg over it and lift yourself with your arms. Push the roller slowly up your leg till you reach the back of your knee.”
Your hamstrings do a lot of work on the bike, but are often neglected. Follow a similar procedure to the calves: “Put the roller behind your knee and cross your legs; roll the roller up the back of your leg till it gets to your glutes. Use your arms to help you as it can be difficult to roll smoothly.”
George is clear that this is an important area: “These are used a lot when pressing and pulling on the pedals so rolling will help stop them becoming tight.”
The powerhouse, the wattage cottage – your glute (bum) muscles work hard, and if they’re tense you can experience all sorts of problems: “[The glute muscles] are used when you press and pull the pedals, and they support your pelvis on the saddle when you press. Rolling will release the piriformis muscle and help the major glute muscles to work.”
Doing it is simple: “Sit on the roller and bend your keens. Put your arms behind you then cross your leg by putting your ankle on the top of your knee. Lean to the side of the leg that is on top. Roll back and forward and lean in and out, before repeating on both sides.”
Lower and upper back
The lower back is a common troublesome area for cyclists – we spend a lot of time bent over the handlebars, then very often more time bent over desks at work. This sort of flexion needs to be addressed: “Your back works a lot when you ride so this will help it recover and lengthen the muscles.”
The how to is simple: “Sit in front of the roller and tuck it in to your lumber. Put one elbow behind you and over the roller lift your butt off the floor and roll up and down the side of your spine. Repeat on the other side.”
If you spend a lot of time bent over, it’s a good idea to give your upper back some love, too. Bringing the roller to your middle back and rolling up to your neck massages the thoratic spine and effectively helps to balance out the amount of time you spend hunching your shoulders by pushing them back.
Does foam rolling work?
If you’re still looking for evidence of the effectiveness of foam rolling, there are plenty of studies out there to convince you.
A review published in the International Journal of Sports Physical therapy* investigated the findings of 14 independent studies.
They concluded that evidence suggested that foam rolling is effective for enhancing range of motion and pre and post exercise muscle performance.
A laboratory study carried out by a group of experts* examined eight active men, splitting them into two groups, both performing heavy squats with half of the participants foam rolling after exercise.
The effects were measured via pressure-pain threshold, sprint speed (30-m sprint time), power (broad-jump distance), change-of-direction speed (T-test), and dynamic strength-endurance.
The experts found that the foam rolling group saw substantially improved quadriceps muscle tenderness in the days after fatigue. Substantial effects ranged from small to large in sprint time, power and dynamic strength-endurance.
Choosing a foam roller
There are many different styles of foam roller out there.
Most foam rollers are around 15cm in diameter – but length varies. If you plan to be using your foam roller mostly at home, you might as well go all out and buy a 90cm one which will allow you the opportunity to use it on the full length of your back should you wish to.
If you think you might be travelling with your foam roller, then look for a smaller one – perhaps 30cm – so you can pop it in a travel suitcase.
Foam rollers vary in density. Choose a low density option if you’re new to the idea and think your muscles are so tight that a higher density version will prove too painful, limiting your use. However, most people will get on fine with a medium one.
There are some knobbly foam rollers out there, these have bumps along the surface that are designed to provide additional trigger point massage. These often have a hard plastic core, with foam over the top. They are generally a bit more durable, but also more expensive and most people get on fine with a basic foam version.
The Effects of Self-Myofascial Release Using a Foam Roller or Roller Massager on Joint Range of Motion, Muscle Recovery and Performance: A Systematic Review by Scott W. Cheatham, PT, DPT, OCS, ATC, CSCS,corresponding author1 Morey J. Kolber, PT, PhD, OCS, CSCS*D,2 Matt Cain, MS, CSCS,1 and Matt Lee, PT, MPT, CSCS3
Foam Rolling for Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness and Recovery of Dynamic Performance Measures by Gregory E. P. Pearcey, MSc,* David J. Bradbury-Squires, MSc,* Jon-Erik Kawamoto, MSc,* Eric J. Drinkwater, PhD,*†David G. Behm, PhD,* and Duane C. Button, PhD*