Relieve back pain and increase muscle function with daily foam rolling
When selecting a foam roller, keep in mind your pressure tolerance for deep-tissue massage
Editor’s Note: Dana Santas is the creator of Radius Yoga Conditioning, a yoga style designed to help athletes move, breathe and focus better. She’s the yoga trainer for the Atlanta Braves, the Philadelphia Phillies, the Tampa Bay Rays, Tampa Bay Lightning, Orlando Magic and dozens of pros in the National Football League, National Hockey League, National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball.
Do you ever wake up stiff and sore? Sometimes our tired legs and achy back don’t want to cooperate with those first few steps out of bed.
Believe it or not, the chronic back and leg tension typical in the general population is also prevalent in professional sports. Because we’re all human and need to sit, stand and move our bodies in similar overall patterns, we experience common areas of recurring tension.
With all the bodily discomfort caused simply by being human, it would seem that everyone needs a daily massage. But that’s not realistic for most of us. Even my pro athlete clients don’t get massages every day! That’s why we integrate self-myofascial release techniques – such as foam rolling – into their daily training.
Although most gyms and sporting good stores carry foam rollers, widespread use of SMR is still relatively new, as is the science surrounding its effects on tight muscles and fascia, a connective tissue that covers all of our muscles. Many soft-tissue therapists and performance specialists believe that tension in fascia causes muscular dysfunction that can be addressed through fascial release techniques, such as foam rolling.
For example, the iliotibial band is a thick band of fascia that runs down the sides of our legs from our hips to our knees. Tension in the IT band can inhibit muscle firing to stabilize the knee, leading to pain, decreased mobility and increased potential for injury.
Others believe that SMR’s effectiveness comes from focusing on muscle tension to increase blood flow, release knots and lengthen muscle fibers.
Whether from targeting fascia or muscle or both, foam rolling has proven in recent studies, including a 2014 study published in Medicine Science in Sports Exercise, to reduce muscle soreness, increase range of motion and enhance muscle strength/function. So, we might not know exactly why – but we do know it works! And you don’t have to be a pro athlete to reap the benefits. If you want to decrease chronic lower-body tension, relieve back pain and increase circulation and muscle function, make foam rolling a daily habit.
Here are seven foam-rolling techniques I use with my pro athlete clients as part of their morning routines or integrated into their warmups. Follow the directions for each position, rolling slowly up and down the targeted area several times while taking five or more long, deep breaths. Pause on any spots that seem particularly sore, releasing your body weight into the tension. Each area (or right or left side) takes only about 30 seconds, which means you can do the sequence below in less than seven minutes a day.
With both hands on the floor behind you for support, rest your calves (back of lower legs) on the roller. Cross your legs at the ankle. Roll from just above your ankle to just below your knee. Repeat on the other side.
Rest your hamstrings (back of upper legs) on the roller with both hands on the floor behind you for support. Bend one knee to place a foot on the roller. Roll your hamstrings from the fold of your glute (bottom) to just above the back of your knees. Repeat on the other side.
Sitting on the roller, bend your leg to bring your foot to the opposite knee. Place a hand on the floor for support. Lean your weight into the bent-knee side and slowly roll the entire glute area (back and outside of your hip). Pay special attention to releasing tension in your piriformis muscle (deep hip rotator), which is often responsible for sciatic nerve pain. Repeat on the other side.
From a side forearm plank, rest your lower leg on top of the roller and place your top foot on the floor for support. Roll from the outside of your hip to just above your knee. If the sensation is too intense, shift more weight into your supporting foot. To increase intensity, stack your legs.
From a forearm plank position with your core engaged for support, slightly spread your legs and open one hip to align the roller on a slight diagonal along your adductors (inner thigh). Roll along the entire length of your adductors from the groins to just before the knee.
Take a forearm plank position with your quadriceps (thighs) resting evenly on the roller. Engage core muscles and walk your forearms forward and back for support as you roll from just below your hips to just above your knees.
Important cautions when rolling your back: If you have any history of spinal injury, consult your doctor. Never roll your cervical spine/neck. If the roller presses uncomfortably against your spine, reposition your weight until you feel muscular support.
Upper/mid-back: Lie on the roller with it positioned across your upper back. Keep both knees bent with your feet down and core engaged for support. Maintain a neutral neck position with your hands placed gently behind your head. Roll slowly from your upper back to the base of your ribcage. To increase intensity, cross your arms in front.
Lower back: From the same position, roll from just above your hips to just below your ribs.
Rollers come in a variety of sizes, surfaces and densities. In the photos, I’ve included samples from RumbleRoller.com, GoRoll.com and M80Roller.com but you can also find basic foam rollers at most sporting goods retailers.
When selecting a foam roller, keep in mind your pressure tolerance for deep-tissue massage. A harder and/or bumpier roller will increase sensation. Make no mistake, foam rolling may be quick and easy, but it isn’t always comfortable, especially at first. But just like a massage, it hurts so good!