The Foam Roller
Before I get started with my question and answer session tonight, I just want to say it is amazing how what you think to be one simple question, can quickly grow into a much more complex answer. My goal today was to keep the topic simpler than the last three days because my brain can only handle so much science in one week. I assumed a simple topic such as foam rollers would be the way to go. Oh what is it they say about assuming…?
Question: Why foam roll? And what are the differences between all of those different colors and sizes?
I’m sure most of us have seen people (or maybe even done it ourselves), rolling around with a look of pain on their faces on what seems to be a random piece of foam. I purchased my own last year and I often times look at it as a form of punishment rather than a form of self-therapy. It hurts. But why? And why is it good for runners?
I once heard someone say that our bodies become what we do. If we run all day and use the same muscles over and over, they will get tight. In our body, we have connective tissue just below the skin that wraps around and connects to muscles, bones, nerves, and blood vessels. The muscles plus this connective tissue (fascia) form the myofascia system. When we overuse this system, underuse it, injure it, or simply don’t stretch it enough, it all gets stuck together and then forms knots, or trigger points. When the myofascia system gets knotted up, we experience pain, soreness, and a limited range of motion. This can lead to further problems for the runner if these “knots” are not worked out. Enter the foam roller….
The purpose of the foam roller is to knead out those knots and break down scar tissue. You use your own weight and the density of the foam, to work out those trigger points By using a foam roller you are releasing and lengthening the fascia, which in addition to breaking down scar tissue, can increase range of motion. A foam roller does what a good sports massage can do, but it’s significantly less expensive and much more convenient.
Foam rollers come in all different shapes and sizes. From what I have read and researched, I have found five different types of foam rollers. The softest and less expensive foam roller is the low density foam roller. It costs about $12 and in my opinion, is good for a back support. I’ve tried the white foam roller and it did absolutely nothing for me. It was just too soft and didn’t even make me hurt. Not my first choice. Going up a level, there is the EVA foam roller which is more dense and therefore, offers more pressure. It will do a much better job at working out those knots, but does cost a little more – around $36. The EVA foam roller will definitely last longer than the low density foam roller, and it will certainly do a better job on that scar tissue. Another type of foam roller is the molded foam roller. It is made from thousands of small high density beads, which are then compressed into shape. This foam roller tends to last longer and it is often the one you see at the gym. It runs about $30.
The last two types of foam rollers are quite different than your traditional ones. First, the TriggerPoint foam roller uses zones, or a “unique matrix of varying widths and densities”, that allow for a more precision based massage. Because of the different zones, you are able to apply different amounts of pressure to certain areas of your body. This foam roller comes in two sizes, the 13 inch and the 26 inch. The smaller would fit great in your gym bag. Depending on the size you get, the price can range from $30 to $65. Personally, I’m only foam rolling one leg at a time so I think the small one would work just fine.
And I’ve saved the best for last… the RumbleRoller. The RumbleRoller, which looks and sounds much scarier than an EVA foam roller, has a bumpy surface instead of a smooth one. The bumps are similar to the thumbs of a massage therapist and are better suited for kneading the contours of your body. In other words, you can apply more direct pressure on that knotty scar tissue. I have never used one, but I imagine it is similar to the direct pressure I get on my legs during active release therapy. Intense and painful, but totally worth it. The RumbleRoller comes in two colors and two sizes. The black one is firmer than the blue, and the smaller one is 12 inches long as opposed to the bigger one at 31 inches. My massage therapist, who recommends the RumbleRoller, suggested the blue one. Apparently the black roller is just a little more intense than what most people can handle. The price can range from $40 – $70, which is quite a bit more expensive than the $12 low density roller. However, I’m willing to bet this one is much more effective and that it will last much longer.
So there you have it. Foam Roller 101. Although I currently have a molded foam roller, I really want to try the RumbleRoller. Maybe I’ll put it on my Christmas list…
Happy Trails and Happy Running,
My medical team