Monday, March 28, 2011

Fun with Foam Rollers

I ran a six-miler this weekend. It was cold, despite the sun shining brightly. When you live by the lake,  temperature deceptions happen quite frequently. You look out and you think it's warm, but when you get out there, it's actually brrrrisk and the wind off the lake is brutal. Me and the wind, we fought it out this weekend. I ran into it the whole way, successfully crossing what I like to call The Scary Drawbridge.

Seriously, it frightens me even when I'm driving over it. You can see right through to the (dirty) river below, which leads right out to the (big) lake at left. It's high, and the railings are somewhat low. I summoned up the courage to stop and snap the following...

...and literally sprinted my butt across to the other side. I get the heebiejeebies just thinking about it. Literally, my whole body just shook.

Anyways. A few weeks ago, I signed myself up for some continuing education credits. It was a home study program from DSWFitness that focused on Foam Roller Fitness, which is a topic that I obviously didn't know much about. The extent of my knowledge: to use a foam roller is to self-massage tired and tight muscles. After I spent the last few weeks studying and reviewing (and playing with) all the materials I ordered—it's safe to say I now know foam rollers are for that and oh, so much more. Saturday night, I tested my newfound knowledge. Sadly, I missed one question. But that didn't prevent me from passing the course!

So now, I feel equipped to tell you how to use a foam roller. Let's start with an answer to the following: What can you do with a foam roller? Let me count the ways:

1) You can stretch with it. (Obviously.)
2) You can use it to improve your coordination and balance.
3) You can challenge your muscles in ways that also strengthen them.

Best part, anyone can use a foam roller. Yes, even you. That's the beauty of the foam roller, it's highly adaptable to any fitness level. It's also completely affordable, which is always a good thing when it comes to fitness equipment. The typical foam roller is priced below $30, usually around half that price. And if you take care of it, it'll last you a very long time. Believe it or not, there are actually a wide variety of foam rollers out there. I have the following:

The most common roller, of course, is the full version (far right) which tends to measure about 32 inches in length and 6 inches in diameter. If you've never used a foam roller before, you might consider investing in the full version as well as a half version with a flat side (center). The half version will be a better place to start in terms of balance exercises, more on that later. Let's get back to what you can do with foam rollers.

You can stretch with foam rollers.
Ever hear of the Golgi tendon organ? It sounds science fictioney, but it's the part of your muscle structure that releases tension. When stimulated, it sends signals to your nervous system which eventually alert you to the presence of tightness in your muscle—which ultimately helps you relax your muscle in an effort to avoid injury. It's this organ that we target when we foam roll. For example, when you roll up and down the outside of your leg, you are looking for tension in the illiotibial (IT) band. If you were to find a spot that was particularly painful, proper foam rolling technique would call for you to stop on that point of pain for 20 seconds. This would further stimulate the Golgi tendon organ in your IT band, which in turn helps it relax (stretch). Make sense? Of course, you can also use the foam rollers as stationary objects meant to assist you in your stretches. Rolling isn't always required! If you were in a kneeling lunge position, perhaps pushing your hips forward to stretch your flexors, you might place the foam roller under your front foot to achieve an even deeper stretch.

Foam rollers can help improve your coordination and balance.
I mean, you've heard of those crazy log rolling championships. Right? Seems to be a big thing among the serious lumberjacks of this world, but really—they're on to something. Picture the foam roller as a log in the water. Could you stand on it? I bet you could, but on solid ground (of course). (We'll leave the crazy water stuff to the 'jacks.) It just takes some practice. And some serious coordination and balance which ultimately stems from the strength of your core muscles. I'd suggest you start with a half roller, flat side down. Once you can balance on it for 20 seconds, flip it over and see if you can balance on the flat side itself. Again, after you've mastered that for 20 seconds, only then would I progress up to the full foam roller. Once you find success balancing on the foam roller, various movements can enhance the challenge of balancing on the roller. Baby steps, though. Right?

Foam rollers challenge your muscles in a way that also strengthens them. 
As I previously mentioned, any coordination and balance work you do on a foam roller will stimulate those core muscles. Of course that strengthens them. But if you master the balance aspect of things, you can begin to introduce squats, medicine ball squats...really, there are a ton of different ways to strengthen your muscles on the foam roller. Expect another post on that soon, I promise. (I fear this post is already long enough, and I'd like to devote another to a complete foam roller workout.)

To conclude, I must note that whenever you do use a foam roller, take note of your surroundings. The same exercise will be different on a hard floor versus a carpeted one. Obviously it will be easier on the carpet which becomes a source of friction. Also, if you're standing on the roller, give yourself ample space in case you fall. But please, take care not to fall. Find yourself a spotter if you're at all nervous about the exercise. Oh, and—I love writing at coffee shops (even though I can't take the iMac with me)! This is why:

With that, I leave you.

Question: Do you own a foam roller? And just for kicks, are you studying anything fun and exciting right now? I always like hearing what my readers get into when they're not working out!

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