Choosing and Using Foam Rollers for Self-Massage

Foam rollers are great tools for self-massage. Learn how to choose the proper one and the most common exercises.

Foam Roller Exercise

The foam roller is a simple and cheap tool that can be used for self-myofascial release — or simply called self-massage. It reduces muscle soreness, muscle tension and the time needed for recovery after exercise. Also it increases range of motion and blood flow.

The foam roller has a core of a cylinder shape and it is covered with foam. The material of the core, the length of the foam roller and the foam density and shape is different on every product — choosing the right one for you can be a hard task.

I started using one about ten months ago — and never stopped since. I have tried a lot of things during the years to help me with my trainings, but most of them failed after a while. The foam roller is one of the best tools I have ever used and I recommend it to anyone. I use it on a daily basis and it helps a lot to release the tension in my leg and back muscles.

To effectively use it you have to pick the right one for your needs than learn to use it properly.

Choosing a Foam Roller

There are three factors that you need to know when selecting a foam roller:

  • the material of the core
  • the length of the foam roller
  • the shape and density of the foam

The core is usually made of plastic and it is hollow, but you can find ones that are solid. The hollow ones are much better for traveling as they are lighter and you can pack other things inside them. On the other hand they can dent or crack much more easily.

I chose a foam roller with a hollow core, but a higher end one — and the company offers lifetime guarantee if the core gets damaged from normal usage. It weights only half a kilogram!

Lengthwise foam rollers vary between 15 and 90 centimeters, the most common ones being 30-35 centimeters. If you use it mostly for your legs, I recommend you the standard size ones. Anything below 30 centimeters is very compact, good for traveling, but it has a limited usage, therefore I recommend them as secondary units. The longer ones, from 60 centimeters and above are good for using it against your back.

Of course the longer the foam roller the more space you need to use and to store it.

I own a 33 centimeters long foam roller and I consider it the perfect size. It is long enough to comfortably use it against my legs — even both at the same time —, and it is okay for my back. As it is quite compact I do not have to worry about its storage, I can leave it almost anywhere in the house. For traveling I would like to get a shorter one, as I prefer to travel with one small backpack and this one takes up too much space.

The foam varies in density from soft to hard. Usually it is color-coded, where lighter colors are the softer ones and darker colors are the harder ones. The harder the density the faster you can release the tension in the myofascia and muscles, but it will hurt more. For most people a medium density is the best choice.

The shape of the foam can be plain or with spikes. The spikes can have all kinds of different patterns — these try to mimic the fingers of a masseur. Spikes help reaching deeper tissue in the muscles, but they can be really painful. A spiky foam roller will not roll as smoothly as its plain brother, especially on hard surfaces — to increase the smoothness of rolling use them on carpeted floors.

My foam roller’s density is hard — if I would have to choose one now, I would go with a medium one, because this one can be a bit harsh on the muscles. There are several different types of spikes on it — big, flat and small, pointed ones — that give me a good variety when using it.

Usage

If you have never used a foam roller before then be prepared, it will hurt for the first few times. Luckily after a short period your muscles will get used to it and the tension will fade away.

It is recommended to start with longer sessions in the beginning, so you will get over the hard period much faster. My first session with a foam roller lasted more than two hours and I instantly felt the difference.

The first thing I have realized was the fact that the sensitive, painful points were elsewhere than I thought. I was sure that my calves have the most problems that need massaging, but I realized that my IT band had the most tension in my legs.

After the first session my legs already felt lighter and relaxed. Most of the muscle soreness was gone, I could move and sleep better.

It took me about three weeks, 30-60 minutes a day to get rid of all the tension and problems that has built up during five years of running.

For best results you have to use the foam roller consistently, preferably every day, but at least five days a week. The shortest period of time should be around 15 minutes, but a 30-45 minute long session is needed for a thorough self-massage.

Exercises

The exercises are simple and easy to learn, but they require some energy and focus — self-massaging with a foam roller is different than getting a massage from a masseur.

Just look at the picture at the top of this post, that is the basis of using a foam roller. You need a flat surface that will not ruin the foam roller, like the floor of your room. Then you put the foam roller onto this surface and your leg on the top of it. Your task is to roll the foam roller under your leg by moving your body or leg back and forth.

Massage the muscle groups one by one and spend a few minutes working each one. The most important groups in your legs:

  • back side of tights: hamstrings
  • from side of tights: quadriceps
  • outer side of tights: IT bands
  • inner side of tights: adductors
  • back side of lower legs
  • front side of lower legs
  • outer side of lower legs
  • inner side of lower legs
  • hip: glutes
  • bottom of feet

I prefer to start massaging both of my legs at the same time, whenever possible — e.g. hamstrings. This way the pressure is lower on the muscles. After a minute or two I switch and massage the legs separately.

When you are massaging one of your legs you can put the other leg on the floor to help keeping your balance or you can put it on the top of the other leg to increase the pressure applied to the muscle.

Foam rollers are popular nowadays and in my opinion they are great tools, but some people say that we should not use them or they should be used only against the muscles, but not bands. The decision is up to you — after you have spoken to your coach and physician.

Author: Előd Császár

Long-distance runner who focuses on a healthy lifestyle.