Recovery Tools: Foam Roller

The Iron Maiden. The Rack. The Foam Roller. All three of these devices were designed to inflict the utmost pain and terror possible in humans unlucky enough to find themselves strapped into/onto it. Luckily for us, at least one of them, the foam roller, also has some benefits for athletic recovery. I’d also be willing to bet that The Rack would feel pretty good as long as you had someone reasonable at the controls, but that’s a post for another day.

The foam roller should be a regular tool in your training program. Yes, it’s brutally painful. Yes, you look like an idiot rolling around on the floor screaming and yelling while balanced on a neon pool noodle and yes, it will help you work harder for longer.

*I’m not a physiotherapist so take this stuff with a grain of salt. It’s how I use it and it seems to work.*

The foam roller works similarly to deep tissue massage in that it breaks up myofascial tissue in your muscles while stimulating blood flow deep into the muscle fibers. The goal is to break down muscle knots to return to a normal level of functioning. Over time the effects of training, poor posture, working conditions, past injuries and other factors lead to muscles that have become overworked and are functioning sub-optimally. I won’t go into detail about the mechanics of it as I would literally just be stealing the information from this site, so go there instead and read it from one of the sources that I learned it from.

The foam roller has been key for me during this training process because we’ve been putting so much stress on our legs and back without adequate rest. For example, during our last 16 hour week I hiked for 350m elevation on Wednesday, lifted at the gym  with four ten-minute sets of pushing ~150lbs on the prowler in Zone 3 on Thursday, bouldered for an hour on Friday, hiked for 650m elevation on Saturday and then climbed eight pitches of moderate trad with a 30 minute approach on Sunday. Thankfully this is a rest week because my legs were destroyed on Monday.

The foam roller lets me speed up the recovery process to get my legs back to being pain-free in a day or two while maintaining the limited flexibility I have. Here’s how I’ve been using it:

Session length: 45-60 minutes

  • I use a yoga mat because my laminate flooring is slippery and painful on my elbows and knees
  • Five minutes on my upper back, focusing on the muscles between my shoulder blades and spine
  • Five minutes on my glutes
  • Five minutes on each quad. I seem to have more tightness towards my knee but it still worthwhile to work the middle, meatiest part of the muscle
  • Five minutes each on the IT-band area (the outside of your legs). This BLOWS, no two ways to say it
  • Five minutes on each of the areas close to my knee on the inside of my thigh
  • I have a difficult time getting sufficient pressure on my hamstrings. If anyone has suggestions I’m all ears
  • Finish with your calves. Pain lives here. If you can embrace it you’ll reap the rewards of better ankle flexibility and a belief that you could probably pull your own fingernails out without batting an eye if you ever needed to.

Don’t let the name trick you into performing this work incorrectly. You don’t really roll around on the thing. The idea is to move around on it until you find the area that hurts the most. A helpful cue will be the uncontrollable whimpering that will spontaneously erupt from somewhere deep inside of you. Stay on the spot and apply as much pressure as you can manage for as long as you can manage. Move on to the next spot when you’re ready. Over time these spots will become less painful. This means that you’re doing it correctly and your muscles have become less tense. You should also have less general soreness following workouts and be able to perform better during them.

My last advice is that you shouldn’t let yourself have the excuse that you don’t have time for this on top of all of your training. If you have time to watch even an hour of T.V. a week, then you have time to sit on the floor with your foam roller while you watch it. I fully believe that over time this kind of structured recovery work is equally as important as the training work you do as it lets you keep working at high level for extended periods of time without being too sore or injured to put your best efforts in.

Next week I’m going to profile the next level of pain in recovery tools: the lacrosse ball.


2 thoughts on “Recovery Tools: Foam Roller

  1. I’m glad to hear that someone else has discovered the association between medieval implements of torture and today’s foam rollers. I personally prefer the grim embrace of the Grid 2.o (, which raises the scream-decibels to excruciating new levels thanks to its distressingly placed nubs.

    Is this the only kind of stretching that you guys do? I do some peremptory stretching before and after my workouts, but nothing serious. And I can really tell that I’m about due for a yoga retreat – my muscles are like iron cords, especially in my hips and lower back.

    Thanks for the detailed notes on your whole foam routine – I’ll try this out when no one is around to watch me writhe in agony.

  2. Hey Lee, I’m in the same boat as you. Matt is all about that roller, I have yet to roll – despite all the benefits. My stretching has consisted of sporadic Yoga and laying very still without bending too much for hours on end. Many gyms have a Mobility class available which I can personally recommend but haven’t found time or effort available to go regularly.

    I’ve decided to start going to Massage Therapy – I’ve found a provider that specializes in myofascial release massage at a physio clinic nearby. My first appointment is for the day after we get back from Khatadin next week.

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