Tips for Using a Foam Roller

To be frankly honest, I don’t really like foam rollers. Too often, I find that clients or friends will injure themselves by either too aggressively using this tool or simply using it incorrectly. (I mean, honestly, who thought it would be a great idea to put foam spikes on a roller?) I would much prefer that they go see a trained massage therapist or bodyworker who can work with their body to gently encourage it to let go of its adhesions rather than forcing it to do something it may not be ready to do. However, some people have to use their foam roller, whether because they cannot go see a massage therapist regularly or because they consider it a necessary part of their self-care routine, and I respect that. With that in mind, then, here are my tips for using a foam roller effectively and safely.

Tip One: Learn more about your IT band.

Most people use a foam roller extensively on their IT band (although its uses can extend to other parts of the body, this is the most common area that people try to work on), but they aren’t entirely sure what their IT band really is. The ilio-tibial band, as it’s more formally called, is not a muscle, but is rather a large sheet of connective tissue that runs from several attachment points in the pelvic area – including the iliac crest, the tensor fascia lata, and the gluteus maximus – to the area just on the side of and below your patella (or kneecap).

Trying to stretch this band of connective tissue as though it were a muscle is an ineffective means of treating tightness in the area, as connective tissue responds in a different way than muscle. For one thing, the band is largely made up of fascia, which is a living, dynamic, three-dimensional structural tissue. (A video of living fascia under the skin was featured in a previous blog post, and you can also view it here.) Because it is meant to assist the bones in maintaining the overall structure of the body, fascia reacts differently to pressure and will actually resist motion that is too fast or too hard. Much like when you mix cornstarch and water to create a substance that acts like a solid when you run upon it, jump on it, or punch it but acts like a liquid when you gently walk on it, lie down in it, or gently and slowly push your hand down into it, fascia responds in a very similar fashion. Thus, motion that is too quickly applied will only cause bruising and potential injury to the fascia of the IT band. Slow, easy pressure (deepening gradually as you work out the surface tension) is the most effective way to help the fascia re-align and loosen.

Tip Two: Listen to your body.

While slower-than-molasses speed and gradually increasing pressure will help to soften the IT band, it is still extremely important to listen to your body. Maybe there is something going on with your connective tissues of which you are not aware, or maybe your body is simply not ready to let go of that adhesion just yet because it’s trying to help splint another area that was injured. Either way, forcing your body to accept the techniques you are trying will only end up causing further harm in the long run, as your body will tighten and resist your treatments. This, in turn, could lead to injury of the tissues on which you were working, which is not the desired result. Listen to your body, take breaks if necessary, and give everything time to adjust to what you are doing. Basically, don’t overdo it.

Tip Three: Use warmth!

Just like muscles, fascia responds extremely well to warmth. If you’ve ever taken a good look at the meat in the grocery store and felt how the white parts of the meat are firm and almost hard as opposed to the red muscle tissue’s soft pliability, you will have an idea of what fascia looks like when it is cold. (A good portion of the white stuff in grocery meat is fat as well, but there is a significant amount of connective tissue as well.) Heat up the meat on a grill or in the oven though, and all of that white, hard fat and connective tissue magically softens.

Fascia is able to reorganize more quickly when there is heat to help facilitate the process. Thus, using your foam roller after you’ve taken a nice, hot shower or bath or after having placed a heating pad up against it for ten or fifteen minutes will help you work into it more easily and with less chance of injury. Still go slow! Just because there is heat doesn’t mean that the fascia will now move like greased lightning under your touch. But instead of like molasses in winter, the fascia may move a little more like molasses on a warm spring day.

Tip Four: Apply the above tips for other areas of your body.

Everything that I have just written can also be applied to any area of the body on which you wish to use a foam roller. While fascia is most concentrated in areas such as the IT band, it is found all throughout your body, helping maintain structure. In fact, it has been surmised that if you could make a person vanish in a single moment and leave behind only their fascia, that you would be able to see the 3D outline of that person’s body for a moment or two before the fascia finally collapsed. Thus, whether you use your foam roller on your IT band or your low back, you will be working with fascia. Be kind to it! The more slowly and gradually you work into that area with the roller and the more you listen to when your body has had enough, the more effective you will find that work to be and the less likely the chance that you will injure yourself.

As always, if you have any questions about this blog post or massage in general, please get in touch with me! You can leave a comment below, email me at julia@atouchoftranquility.net, or message my business on Facebook.