I completed a particularly intense workout last week and found myself wanting nothing more than a massage to speed up recovery.
So out came the foam roller.
Obviously, I would have preferred to book an appointment at one of the city's posh spas - but why shell out $150 when I could get some much needed relief from a $30 tube of foam stored in my closet?
If you spend enough time at a gym or log enough miles running, you're probably familiar with the roller. And you likely have a love/hate relationship with it.
For everyone else, the roller looks like the type of object that could easily be confused with leftover material from shop class. Or, when standing upright, a budget plinth.
Made from extruded polyethylene foam packed into a dense cylindrical shape, it provides a straightforward, risk-free way to calm overactive muscles as a form of soft tissue therapy (also known as myofascial release).
Essentially, it allows you to self-massage those muscles from angry to ahhhhh.
Most roller regulars use it on their hamstrings, quads and iliotibial bands (the IT band stretches along the outside of the thigh, from the pelvis to the knee). It can also provide relief to the adductor and groin area along the inner thighs. Less common are stretches for the serratus muscles (below the underarm) and the thoracic spine. You can even use it along your forearms or (gently) for your neck.
But be warned, it can feel excruciating.
The foam roller does not give you licence to speed through the pain. Roll slowly and work through the squirmy spots. Spend between 30 and 60 seconds on each exercise.
There's hardly any strategy involved in rolling. The only constant: placing the roller under the target area. For lower body exercises, you use your arms as levers to rock you back and forth over top the tube. You rock, it rolls!
A lot of the movements are intuitive. Using the IT band as an example, lie on your side with the roller under your thigh, bottom leg raised slightly above the floor. Cross the other leg over as an anchor (hands on the ground too) and begin. Just make sure to never roll down as far as the knee (or other joints).
When in doubt, ask a trainer at the gym to correct your form, or look on YouTube. I typed in foam roller and found more than 600 videos, all addressing the basics as well as postural and core training exercises.
Indeed, rollers can be an excellent complement to Pilates. Try a traditional bridge with the roller under the sacrum, or attempt a plank with the roller propped under the ankles and you'll understand immediately. When you lie vertically along the roller (so it's parallel with the spine), you can lift your legs, carefully, to 90 degrees and presto, the core starts working even harder.
Melissa Enfield, a Toronto-based yoga and Pilates trainer, devotes some classes entirely to roller work. She says everyone can benefit from using rollers but they are most helpful to those who are generally in good shape but have an injury that needs to be addressed, as well as anyone trying to improve mobility and range of motion. She also likes that the extra balancing necessary to stay atop the roller translates into "intrinsic core muscle activation" (deeper engagement).
The roller is effective, she explains, because the pressure turns on the Golgi tendon organs, sensory receptors connected to the muscle fibres, and causes them to relax.
For people who find the sensation too intense, Ms. Enfield recommends wrapping a towel around the roller or, as a last resort, trying a softer tube such as a pool noodle.
If there's any downside, it's that the standard size (36 inches) is large. But half-size rollers are available. Over time, rollers can lose their rigidity and will need to be replaced, so watch for flattened areas. Prices range typically between $18 and $40, depending on length and density.
It seems like there's little the roller can't do. Ms. Enfield suggests ten minutes of exercises every night before bed and my whole body will thank me. Best of all, I don't need to leave a tip.