OPMD* 4: Body Maintenance
You age, your body’s key connective tissue steadily degrades, and you purchase a piece of curious therapy equipment to become more pliable. Then you quickly surmise that your new foam roller delivers thumbscrew-intensity levels of torture. Soon the roller sits upright and unused in a corner of your room. It becomes a mini coat rack.
Rescue that roller! Growing proof indicates that a foam roller effectively soothes a middle-aged athlete’s groans and creaks. It really can make you feel better. The key is to familiarize yourself with the tool—we’ll help ease the introduction—because according to researchers, you’ll feel looser and less sore after strenuous workouts.
Foam rollers and their related technologies, which come in the form of stick-rollers, massage balls, and other self-massaging devices, all at least partly exist to perform one duty: myofascial release.
Fascia is like both a second skin and an internal framework—membranous connective tissue that works invisibly to stabilize, position, anchor, and protect muscles and organs. But over time or due to injury or stress, areas of our fascia can become tacky and uncooperative. Aging muscles and fascia can stick together, sort of like overcooked pasta. These adhesions cause tightness, strain, and pain.
Research argues the case for rolling. A small, recent study demonstrated that, following intense exercise, foam rolling reduces muscle soreness. A 2015 review in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy (IJSPT) surveyed more than a dozen peer-reviewed studies on self-myofascial release (SMR) and found that such work largely, if not temporarily, provides relief. Businesses and websites preach SMR therapies as cornerstones of fitness.
But the more important foam-rolling question is, how do you best do it? Unfortunately, no definitive methodology for foam-rolling and other self-massage exists. To some extent, our bodies are the dough and the devices are our rolling pins. Flatten those lumps.
“Due to the heterogeneity of methods among studies,” wrote the authors of the IJSPT’s 2015 review, “there currently is no consensus on the optimal SMR intervention.”
Two established foam-roller companies, however, are in agreement on key SMR strategies.
“Don’t wait to roll until you have a big problem,” says Addaday’s Chelsea Sodaro.
“Some foam rolling,” says TriggerPoint’s Janelle Ronquillo, “is better than none.”
Indeed, bodyworkers frequently prescribe rolling or other forms of self-massage about every other day, even for just 10 concentrated minutes at a time (consider rolling while you watch TV).
Back to that initial pain. If the act of rolling really hurts—as it does for many knotted-up folks—start with less rolling per session. TriggerPoint suggests that beginners might give the therapy but one minute at a time.
The more you roll and/or self-massage, the less painful the process becomes, the firmer the tool you might consider (Addaday athlete and two-time Olympian Kara Goucher is pictured above on the knobbier Nonagon ($45)).
Here are some additional guidelines, and a couple self-massage how-to videos, to get you started.
Self-Myofascial Release at a Glance
- Work your way up. Perhaps roll as little as one body section per session: calves (lower legs), quadriceps (upper legs), glutes (butt), and back.
- Massage particularly tender and knotted areas in at least two directions—up and down, and side to side.
- In order to relieve a single point’s acute pain, try pressuring that one point for anywhere from several seconds to half a minute. But rolling should never equal suffering. Roll around any points that create intense discomfort.
- Breathe deeply while you roll, as if receiving a massage. You’ll move more slowly (some fitness instructors recommend only an inch rolled per second). You’ll also better relax muscles—which is particularly key when rolling out your lower back.
- Ideally, roll before and after exercise.
- With experience, dig into other areas like the pectorals, hamstrings, and upper arms. And simultaneously stretch while applying pressure to problem areas.
Roll out your lower legs:
Take a massage stick to your lower back:
*Old Person Move of the Day