A Guide to Foam Rolling

Foam rolling is a self-myofascial release technique that can relieve tension in overworked muscles.

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When you begin foam rolling, you may feel like you've entered a love/hate relationship. But over time, you'll realize it's so important that you'll wonder why you never did it before. If you work out regularly, have tight muscles (who doesn't?), suffer from injuries, have muscles imbalances, feel stressed or experience tension in your body, then foam rolling is meant for you. Here's a guide to what that mysterious cylinder foam roller you see at the gym is all about.

Monica Nelson
Monica Nelson
I don't know about you, but I don't know anyone with a perfect body. Nearly every human body has been through trauma, has muscle imbalances, poor posture and alignment, and deals with the stress of everyday life. (Those with kids know exactly what I'm saying!) Many of us have experienced pain, posture issues and tight muscles. Our bodies (as brilliant as they are) learn to compensate for what we throw at them. Ever notice those "knots" and trigger points? You don't want to fall into the bad habit of working out and adding more dysfunction to your body. Think of it like brushing your hair. When you don't brush regularly, it becomes tangled and knotted. When you keep a routine and brush your hair frequently, you can avoid that. Foam rolling is the same concept, and you just need to do it regularly to take advantage of all its benefits.

[Read: Physical Therapy for Running Injuries.]

The foam roller not only stretches muscles and tendons, but it breaks down soft tissue adhesions and scar tissue. By using your own body weight and a cylindrical foam roller, you can perform a self-massage or myofascial release, break up trigger points and soothe tight fascia while increasing blood flow and circulation to the soft tissues. This can lead to improved range of motion, flexibility and movement and workouts, along with increased blood flow.

Foam rollers offer many of the same benefits as a sports massage or deep-tissue massage – but without the big price tag. This is why you have to get on board! We only get one body. You should be treating it better than your car or house. Think about what one month, six months or two years from now will look like if you stick with foam rolling. Now, consider all the released toxins, build-ups, inflammation and reduced or non existing issues. You will absolutely feel the difference, I promise – my clients say they've never felt better in their tight areas. Foam rolling also helps you relax and is a great stress reliever.

[Read: Try One of These Quirky Stress-Busters.]

So let's discuss how it really works and what "superficial fascia" really is. The superficial fascia is a soft connective tissue located just below the skin. It wraps and connects the muscles, bones, nerves and blood vessels of the body. Together, muscle and fascia make up what is called the myofascia system. For various reasons including disuse, overworked muscles, not enough stretching or injuries, the fascia and underlying muscle tissue can become stuck together. This is called an adhesion (think of is as a layer of "fuzz") which results in restricted muscle movement. It also causes pain, soreness and reduced flexibility, or range of motion.

Myofascial release is a body-work technique in which you use gentle, sustained pressure on the soft tissues while applying traction to the fascia. This technique results in softening and lengthening (release) of the fascia and breaking down scar tissue or adhesions between skin, muscles and bones. Think of this like a massage. Myofascial release has also been shown to relieve various muscle and joint pains such as IT band syndrome and shin splints, and it also improves flexibility and range of motion. For example, if you have neck pain or tight pectoral muscles, foam rolling would be very beneficial to add to your routine. However, I don't recommend foam rolling over your lower back. Use a tennis ball for that.

[Read: 8 Essentials To Stuff In Your Gym Bag.]

Foam rollers are inexpensive, and with a bit of experimentation you can target just about any muscle group. As you're getting started, pick your level of firmness. There are all sorts of foam rollers available, with different sizes, firmness and color. What's best for you depends on how often you'll be using it and your level of experience. It can be painful at first, so I highly recommend a softer foam roller at the beginning; these are usually white. The next level of firmess is medium, which means blue or green foam rollers. And the most firm foam rollers are typically black and purple; some also have knobs on them (whoa, mama!). As tempting as it might be to grab the hardest one, fueled by hopes of relieving that tightness in your body, I suggest holding off: Start with very light pressure and work your way up. It's often best to begin with 30 seconds at a time, and then work your way up to two or three minutes on that same area. If muscles are very tense, using a foam roller will feel painful, which is why it's best to start easy and then add additional pressure.

[Read: How to Identify a Running Injury.]

Treat this as a "project" for your body. Go slow but steady, and if you find a knot where you really feel it, just breathe and don't overdo it. When you get really familiar with the flow of foam rolling, you'll be able to move on to the biggest knots and trigger points – it'll be easier and more enjoyable. You can also use a tennis ball or lacrosse balls for smaller areas of your body. Don't be surprised if you feel sore the next day, just as you would after a massage.

If you're wondering about the best time to foam roll, the answer is: anytime. Ideally, though, you'll do it before exercising. It's often best to foam roll, then lightly stretch those muscles, and then start your workout. This gives your muscles more range of motion, and you won't be building dysfunction over dysfunction. Another great time is immediately before a massage or before doing yoga; this makes it easier to really release and open up. Give it 24 to 48 hours before focusing on the same area again.

Self-myofascial release can still be treated as a form of exercise, so certain precautions are necessary. If you have one of the following conditions, check with your doctor before getting started: connective tissue disorders such as fibromyalgia, ankylosing spondylitis, skin disturbances (such as pressure sores, bruises or eczema), visual or balance disorders, significant cardiac or pulmonary conditions, and pregnancy.

[Read: 4 Exercises Trainers Hate.]

Tell us: Are you a fan of foam rolling, or is this the first you've heard of it?

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns and feedback.

Monica Nelson, or "Moni" to her friends and clients, is a personal trainer, healthy foods chef, accomplished athlete, model and well-respected health and fitness expert. She works with celebrities and has been featured in publications such as SHAPE and Fitness. She's been a competitive snowboarder and is a true fitness fanatic. Moni's motto in life is "EAT WELL.STAY FIT. FEEL GREAT." Another one of her greatest passions and talents is cooking and baking. She runs a healthy recipe blog where she has created more than 350 healthy and decadent meals to enjoy. You can connect with Moni on Facebook and follow @monimealfitness on Twitter and Instagram. Grab a recipe or two at www.monimeals.com then head over for a workout and get her latest tips at www.monicanelsonfitness.com. Moni lives in Los Angeles with her wonderful husband Mark, who is also a trainer, and their incredible English bulldog Eddie.