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You may have seen some people at the gym rolling on a foam roller – ever wondered why on earth they are doing it?

Well, foam rolling or ‘self-myofascial release’ (which is a fancy term for self-massage) is used before or after a workout to release muscle tightness or trigger points – basically it helps smoothen and lengthen your muscles.

By applying pressure to certain points on your body you are able to help speed up the recovery of muscles and return them to normal function.  Normal function means your muscles are healthy, elastic, and ready to work.

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If you’ve seen someone use a foam roller you might have noticed the slightly contorted look on their face, maybe you’ve witnessed a little bit of wincing or expletives being muttered… yes, foam rolling can be painful.  However, you only need to use a foam roller for five to ten minutes after your workout session to reap the benefits.  Whilst foam rolling can be painful, it should only be uncomfortable and not unbearable. When you’re finished it should feel better!

Myofascial Who?

Myofacial release gets its name from ‘fascia’, a sheet of connective tissue just beneath the skin which covers the entire body. Restrictions within this can affect the whole body.  If you can imagine trying to wear a skin suit that is too small and won’t pass easily over your legs then movement is going to be greatly restricted!

The fascia contains many blood vessels, lymphatic vessels (your body’s sewer system) and nerves.  So because of this, improvements in the condition of fascia will lead to improvements in circulation/nervous system and possibly even organ function.

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What Are Trigger Points?

Trigger points are ‘knots’ (they can feel like little lumps) that form in muscles and can be identified when pressure is applied to that area because they will be painful!  Technically a trigger point is a hyper irritable spot within a taut band of soft tissue which has a local and predictable referred pain pattern. If left untreated these trigger points result in reduced range of movement and weakness.  A trigger point can develop from postural imbalance, overuse of muscle or compensatory movements that continue unchecked for a period of time.  A common example of a trigger point is felt while foam rolling your iliotibial (IT) band as it causes pain to move up to the hip or down the leg to the ankle.

Releasing trigger points helps to restore normal and pain free movement and helps to enhance performance.  Stretching on its own is not always enough to release muscle tightness, which is why foam rollers have started to become a lot more popular with regular gym goers and not just athletes.

What Causes Trigger Points and Tight Muscles?

Our bodies learn to compensate for what we throw at them every day, but we can go beyond our ability to recover by training too much, having poor posture, bad nutrition and other lifestyle factors.  This is when you need a helping hand with self-help recovery techniques or through seeing a professional.

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Where and How to Roll

There are two main ways to identify what parts of your body you need to roll:

  1. Focus on specific areas/muscles that relate to your workout/areas you are focusing on
  2. Self exploration – find your trigger points by getting to know your body, where does it feel sore/tight?

Now to get rolling – apply moderate pressure to a specific muscle or muscle group using the roller and your bodyweight.  Roll slowly and when you find areas that are tight or painful, stop for several seconds. You should start to feel the muscle releasing, and after 5 to 30 seconds the uncomfortable feeling or pain should reduce.  If an area is too painful to apply direct pressure, move the roller and apply pressure on the surrounding area and work to loosen the whole area.  This isn’t a pain tolerance competition – the aim is to get your muscles back to their normal and healthy selves, so take your time and stop when you need to – understand your limits.

The Don’ts

  • Never roll a joint or bone
  • Don’t roll the whole of your lower back – if you do need to roll it make sure you do one side at a time to avoid your spine.  Take care – don’t just roll up and down, take it slowly to find the spots that need work
  • Don’t roll your neck – if you are having problems with your neck go and seek professional advice as these areas can be more sensitive and require advanced attention

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By Matt Heywood

Matt Heywood is a sports massage therapist and personal trainer helping a range of clients to achieve their fitness goals.  His aim is to keep all his clients motivated and physically able to carry out and enjoy their training.

For more information on Matt visit