CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Dear Cindy,My trainer recommended I use a foam roller because I have pain in my hip area after my workouts. I love to challenge my body, so I hit it hard, but I am left with really tight muscles. He says the roller will help me recover from workouts like a massage would, but when I tried rolling on it in the gym, it was pretty painful. I'd like to know if this tool has merit, or is it just all hype? -- GregDear Greg,Contrary to slick marketing and hype that drives most of today's fitness products, I honestly believe the foam roller is one of the best investments active people can make. It is one of the simplest yet most-valuable pieces of fitness paraphernalia created in the past 15 years to treat tight, sore muscles. Called the poor man's massage therapist, the foam roller's use for therapeutic reasons continues to grow.I'm wholeheartedly in favor of foam rolling for anyone who experiences painful knots from sports, exercise, running, cycling, etc. Of course, you should always check with your physician or sports medicine specialist if your hip pain is due to more than tight, stiff muscles after exercise.What is it?It is a foam cylinder, six inches in diameter, that eases tension and mimics a deep gliding massage using your own body weight and agility. It has evolved from a "one density fits all" to having varying degrees of firmness, which means the roller can be beneficial to all ages and to varying degrees of muscularity.Think about it. You know how scratching your back on a door frame feels so good? Why? Because you can control the amount of pressure exactly where you want and need it and you need no help from anyone.How does it work?Just as a massage therapist does during a deep tissue massage, a foam roller can locate trigger points -- tender or painful areas -- and breaks down soft tissue adhesions and scar tissue. Some muscles (like hip flexors) and ligaments (like the iliotibial band) are prone to shortening, which make them difficult to stretch. Foam rolling can apply deep pressure massage to such areas and lengthen shortened tissues, thereby preventing physical imbalances that can increase the risk for injury. It also stretches muscles, soothes tight fascia and increases blood flow and circulation.Why does exercise sometimes cause pain?The superficial -- just beneath the skin -- fascia is what is referred to as connective tissue. It connects the muscles, bones, nerves and blood vessels of the body. Together, muscle and fascia make up the myofascia system. Various factors, including poor mechanics, injury, overuse and lack of sufficient recovery, can cause the fascia and underlying muscle tissue to become stuck together. This creates an adhesion-scar tissue, which restricts muscle movement, causes pain and limits range of motion.Foam roller benefits
Breaks down adhesions beneath the skin, muscles and bones. Improves blood circulation throughout the skin, including fascia, muscles, tendons and ligaments. Softens and lengthens short and tight muscles, tendons and ligaments. Reduces risk of injury as muscles become more pliable and flexible. Relieves muscular and joint pain such as IT band syndrome (outside of the thigh) and shin splints. Decreases muscular pain and spasms. Expedites healing from minor sports injuries. Can optimize athletic performance.Do's and don'ts of foam rolling When you find a really sensitive area or trigger point, stop and let your weight apply pressure for 30 to 45 seconds before continuing to roll the area. Roll back and forth slowly across a tender or stiff area for about 60 seconds. Use the foam roller two to three times a day if possible. Stay off the skeletal areas and stay on the muscular areas. Stretch after using the foam roller. Can be used as a gentle warm-up before exercise. Can be a terrific post-exercise recovery tool. Do not roll joints, lower back, neck or any bony area. Don't roll calves during pregnancy.Bottom lineWhether you are an elite athlete or a weekend warrior, there is merit in using a foam roller. It may cause some discomfort while you are rolling on the tender areas, but be patient, apply gentle pressure and soon you will reap the rewards. At about $20, this under-hyped fitness tool is an inexpensive way to reduce pain during and after physical activity.Cindy Boggs, fitness presenter, author and Activate America director, has been an ACE-certified instructor/trainer since 1989. Send your questions about fitness, training or health to her at YMCA of Kanawha Valley, 100 YMCA Drive, Charleston, WV 25311, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Look for Cindy's award-winning fitness advice book, "CindySays ... You Can Find Health in Your Hectic World," at www.cindysays.com, or contact the YMCA at 304-340-3527.