For an effective masseuse without the hefty price tag, look no further than the foam roller. Combined with our body weight, this simple cylinder can loosen tight muscles and correct muscular imbalances, all from the comfort (er, more on that in a bit) of home . While it requires a little more effort than relaxing on a table, foam rolling is good for those looking to relieve pain and prevent injury without the pampering.
Rock 'n' Roll — The Need-to-Know
Foam rolling is a popular form of self-myofascial release (SMR), a type of soft-tissue therapy that focuses on the nerves and connective tissue (or fascia) between muscles. Due to overuse and injury, muscle fibers and fascia can become knotted together and, if left untreated, this condition can cause a buildup of movement-impairing scar tissue. Foam rolling, massage, and other myofascial release techniques use direct pressure to stretch problem muscles until these knots — and the imbalances they cause — are at least partially removed . And since a single muscle imbalance can lead to faulty movement patterns and joint fatigue, foam rollers are more than worth their (admittedly light) weight in preventative gold .
Roll the Pain Away — Your Action Plan
While it's effective at reducing pain in muscles like the quads and hamstrings, foam rolling is not a substitute for orthopedic care after a significant muscle tear. Self-massage techniques might also be significantly more effective at relieving acute pain, though recent research suggests benefits for chronic pain sufferers as well . Nor is it recommended as a solution for people with severe acute arthritis or painful varicose veins  .
Otherwise, foam rolling can be done anytime, anywhere. And it’s especially useful as part of a workout warm-up or cool-down. Place the targeted muscle group on top of the foam roller, apply gentle pressure, and slowly roll along the trouble spot. If a particular area is tight or painful, pause over it for 20-30 seconds, pulsing on and off until tenderness has subsided. Disclaimer: If it hurts like hell, it's probably working.
The foam roller may put a dent in tight muscles, but at $10-$30, it won’t leave a huge mark on the pocketbook. Foam rollers aren’t the only tool in the SMR trade, though. For more targeted muscle therapy, try a simple tennis or lacrosse ball, SMR block, or The Stick, and, hey, let the good times roll.
Have any sneaky foam rolling tips? Tell us in the comments below!
Originally published June 2011. Updated April 2012.
Photo by Jordan Shakeshaft