It’s waiting for you. Lurking in the corner of every gym. Watching you from beneath your physical therapist’s desk. Peering up at you from under your chiropractor’s drop table. Hiding in your mom’s basement, between the treadmill and yoga mat.
The foam roller.
Don’t be fooled by its innocent appearance! The foam roller is most certainly NOT just a big fat ol' pool noodle. While it may look innocuous, those of us who have foam-rolled know the truth: it’s DEADLY.
OK, jokes (mostly) aside, the foam roller is arguably one of the most effective pieces of exercise equipment on planet earth. It’s just a simple, cylindrical piece of foam—but using a foam roller on the reg will help you prevent injury, improve your training recovery time, and keep your muscle tissue supple and healthy. But the process can be…uncomfortable.
Who am I kidding—foam rolling hurts like a beast. More often than not, you'll find me on the floor of the gym post-roll, curled up in a little ball of sweet, sweet myofascial misery. As I like to tell my clients, “if you’re not thinking four-letter words while foam-rolling, you’re doing it wrong.”
It tends to hurt. Sometimes a lot (latissimus dorsi, anyone?). So why do we do it? Why subject ourselves to this form of weird, medieval muscle torture? Simple: IT’S GOOD FOR YOU!
“If you’re not thinking four-letter words while foam-rolling, you’re doing it wrong.”
So now that I’ve scared you off of using the foam roller entirely, let me now convince you why you should LOVE it, EMBRACE it, and do it EVERY SINGLE DAY.
To begin, let’s talk about collagen (baby!). Much of your body is actually made up of collagen, arranged in all sorts of different configurations to produce structures like tendons and ligaments. The word collagen comes from the Greek root kolla, meaning “glue,” so we can get a sense of the importance of collagen in forming the connective tissues that hold our bodies together. Skin, cartilage, bones, blood vessels, muscles—collagen is the raw material in them all. But narrowing our focus to the structures affected by foam rolling, let’s talk collagen fibers in muscles.
Collagen (which helps to make up fascia: my favorite word and physiological obsession, that warrants its own blog let alone future blog post) surrounds each one of your muscle fibers as part of the endomysium. That’s the fancy-schmancy name for the coating of connective tissue that sheaths every individual muscle fiber. STAY WITH ME HERE! The fact that collagen surrounds each of your muscle fibers is important to understand, because this also means that 1) collagen runs the entire length of each muscle, and 2) collagen fibers are specifically aligned to respond to specific loads. I.e., there is a RIGHT and a WRONG way for collagen fibers to be aligned.
Think of collagen fibers like a bunch of straws, all running parallel in the same direction. Each straw can support one load in one direction quite well: if you hold a straw upright on a table, you have to push pretty hard before it buckles. But if you pinch the sides of the straw together, you barely have to push at all before it collapses. So if you wanted your bunch of straws to support a significant amount of weight, it would make sense that you would want all your straws to be un-pinched and running in the same direction. (Although why you have a bunch of straws in your hand, wanting to test their weight-bearing capacity in the first place is beyond me, you weirdo.)
But seriously—collagen fibers are like a bunch of straws. And sometimes, with regular training, overtraining, sports, or even disuse, your collagen fibers can become kinked. In the case of a minor muscle tear, these fibers can break. And when your body senses an injury to your muscle, it (being the awesome and amazing machine that it is) sends a bunch of collagen to repair that site immediately. What happens next is a rapid, haphazard, sticky, caddywompus thatching of collagen fibers to the injury site—collagen fibers running willy-nilly in every direction! It would be like your beloved bunch of straws, spilled all over the kitchen floor like pick-up sticks. This thatch-like repair site of collagen fibers is called scar tissue. And just like a bunch of kinked straws, misaligned collagen fibers mean your muscle can support less weight.
Healthy tissue mechanics have been compromised.
The capacity of your muscle’s force production has been diminished.
Re-injury to the site is more likely.
IN THE NAME OF ALL THAT IS HOLY, WHAT CAN I DO TO FIX THIS TRAVESTY?!
Answer (wait for it): foam-roll.
This is one of the foundational principles of myofascial release and massage therapy. The pressure of your body’s weight against a foam roller helps to break up the areas of scar tissue that can accumulate in your muscles, and therefore restore your body’s proper movement patterns. Foam rolling helps to untangle the twists, kinks, and knots that form along the length of my muscle tissue. Once those sticky areas of messy collagen are broken up, your muscle fibers are FREE to function as designed.
(I like to think of my muscles as cookie dough, and my foam roller as a big rolling pin, smoothing things out. It’s the only thought that keeps the pain at bay. Plus I love cookies.)
But don’t just take my word for it! Hop on Amazon and order yourself a foam roller, if you don’t have one already. If you do have one, I dare you to spend 10 minutes a day working on those kinky, yucky, painful areas of misaligned cartilage (latissimus dorsi, anyone?). Do it before or after your workout—or both! Do it while watching Netflix. Do it while Skyping with your grandma. I don’t care how you do it, just DO IT! (Maybe I should market that catchphrase…) Do it, and enjoy a marked increase in your mobility, a decrease in muscle stiffness, and the inner satisfaction that comes only from realigning your muscle’s collagen fibers to sustain greater stress and produce greater force.
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Learn more about Christye and read her other posts | @CoachChristye