A Tale of Foam Rollers and Massages

FMR is a foam-roller die hard. He absolutely swears by it and diligently foam rolls every day. I, on the other hand, own a foam roller that has collected a layer of dust so thick you could scrape it off to make dust bunnies.

Until recently…

I have never had knee pain to the point that I felt had to seek professional help for it. Okay, I lie. I did have knee pain a long time ago after a rock climbing injury. I took a leader fall and slammed my knee into a protruding stalactite. That kind of incident does tend to result in knee pain. What I meant is that this is the first time that I have experienced random knee pain that appears to have sprung out of nowhere and feels like it is progressively getting worse.

They tell me that my muscles are tight and there is speculation that I am over training. I don’t know if the former is true but I wonder about the latter since there are plenty of people who work out harder than me without repercussions. I confess that I’m pretty lazy with stretching and I just admitted that I don’t foam roll. Up until now, I have gotten away with it and suffered no consequence. It is possible that it has finally caught up to me. Despite being active for a large part of my life, I have never trained this hard before. Throw in the age factor and it is probably no surprise that something would give way.

Myofascial Release / Muscle Manipulation / Massage

I have always been a bit skeptical about the whole myofascial release therapy practice. Okay, this may not be the correct term for it. Whether it’s called muscle manipulation or if it is just a kind of massage, here’s the gist of it:

You can pay someone to do it for you. It is pretty much a massage with a focus on your “trigger points”. Alternatively, you can self-administer using a variety of foam rollers (they come in different shapes and sizes) or you can use your hands.

I did try it out for a bit under duress from FMR – hence the purchase of my own foam roller – but I never kept up the practice. Maybe I wasn’t doing it right, but I didn’t feel any real benefit from it. Besides, I’m kinda lazy and am usually pretty happy to let my body figure itself out. If I can still do all my activities and there is no noticeable benefit, then why bother?

Well, here’s my grandmother story why…

Knee Pain Down Under

During my last two trips back to Australia during winter, I noticed a discomfort in my knees. I’d heard about cold weather joint pain and often linked it to “old people” with arthritis or other joint problems. It is hard to think of myself as “old” but I guess I am in that category as I move further into my forties.

After the first trip where I felt discomfort, the pain went away once I was back in warmer weather. I figured the same would happen when the pain returned during my recent trip to Melbourne. Unfortunately for me, it didn’t. Not really. It mostly went away, but a niggly sort of sensation that I hesitate to call “pain” remained. I knew that it was something that shouldn’t be there but it did not restrict my activities so I ignored it.

Boy was that a mistake.

Knee Pain from Tight Muscles

I resumed my usual workouts. I pushed a little more vigorously than I normally did because I was trying to make up for lost holiday time. One morning, I woke up with soreness but it wasn’t a post-workout morning soreness. It was specific to the knee – right in the hollow of my left knee. After moving around for a bit, my knee warmed up and the “discomfort” went away.

I thought it safe to continue with my workouts so I went for my spinning class as scheduled. After class, it felt somewhat worse for wear, but I could still walk. In fact, movement made it feel better. Sitting aggravated it in the sense that my leg muscles would get cold and start acting up when I was on the move again. After getting up, I would feel the soreness for a little while and then it would dissipate after more walking.

Never mind, I thought. I was sure all I really needed was a good night’s rest and it would be right as rain in the morning. Except it wasn’t. The next morning, I woke up with increased soreness. It was definitely getting worse. I continued to workout, but I kept the focus on upper body and left my legs alone.

By the afternoon, I knew something was very wrong. It was starting hurt for longer and movement wasn’t resolving the pain. Yes, by now it had gone from discomfort to pain, although I felt nothing while sitting down. Even after I got up, it would be okay for about the first step or two and then I would feel it flood into my knee like blood rushing into an area that had previously been compressed.

This was about the time I started to panic. I feared that I might have done something irreversible to my knee. I cancelled my workouts and went to get it checked out. Thankfully, it was not irreversible – just very tight muscles that needed relaxing/manipulation through massage (myofascial release/muscle manipulation/foam rolling).

Muscle Manipulation from a Therapist

In between the niggle, discomfort, and pain, I had been foam rolling. It brought me some relief, but never enough to make it go away. Perhaps because I lack the experience to know where to massage or maybe I just don’t have magic hands. It was only when I got a massage from an experienced therapist did it really make a difference. The pain all but disappeared. Of course, it took a couple of days to completely return to normal but the relief after just one session had me sold.

I found that the therapist would massage areas that weren’t at the point of the discomfort. For instance, the knee might be sore, but it was the hamstring that was tight and causing the pain. Even when I foam roll on my own, I might be rolling the ITB but I would feel twinges on the outer part of my knee. It makes sense because everything is connected. When the muscle is tight, it pulls on the tendons connecting that muscle to the joint. The tendons pull the joint out of its proper alignment and it hurts.

The bottom line (for me anyway): foam rolling is great and pretty helpful, but a good massage therapist is magic. I don’t know what they do differently, but it just works better than when I try to massage the tightness on my own.

Continuing with the Foam Roller

Once the therapist had treated the worst of it, I found I was able to keep the discomfort at bay by diligently foam rolling regularly.

Foam rolling

If I was a skeptic before, I am a convert now. Never have I had a more faithful relationship with my foam roller. Of course, I will still leave the more serious manipulations to the expert, purely because I don’t really know which areas need attention. I generally roll all parts of my legs and concentrate on the spots that feel like they hurt the most.

Foam rolling aside, I do think it’s worth visiting a massage therapist for maintenance every once in a while if you’re working out pretty hard.

Foam Rolling for DOMS

Like I said, I am a convert. There may not be a lot of research on this sort of therapy but it works for me. After coming back from Australia, my first PT session left my shoulders, wings, biceps and triceps aching terribly from DOMS. The relief after rolling was so great that I have jumped ship and joined FMR’s foam rolling everyday camp.

What Foam Rolling Does

So how does foam rolling help? According to the experts, this is what it does for your muscles:

  • helps reduce pain and muscle soreness by increasing blood flow and oxygen to the tissue, thereby promoting the body’s healing process. 
  • improves flexibility and increases range of motion by stretching and lengthening muscles. 
  • helps prevent common injuries by releasing muscle tension because tight muscles are more prone to injury.

Foam Rolling Exercises

Generally, the areas that hurt the most when you roll are the spots you need to concentrate on. The reason they hurt is because the muscles are tight in those areas. Once you roll it out and it relaxes, it should stop hurting when you roll. This may require more than one session to achieve though.

If you need a bit more guidance, this chart is great – although I find that many of these moves are pretty instinctive:

For more detailed instructions and to learn more about what you can do with foam rolling, try these books:

  • Foam Roller Workbook: Illustrated Step-by-Step Guide to Stretching, Strengthening and Rehabilitative Techniques
  • The MELT Method: A Breakthrough Self-Treatment System to Eliminate Chronic Pain, Erase the Signs of Aging, and Feel Fantastic in Just 10 Minutes a Day!
  • Foam Rolling: 50 Exercises for Massage, Injury Prevention, and Core Strength
  • Taller, Slimmer, Younger: 21 Days to a Foam Roller Physique

Happy Rolling!

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of Figur8.net (a website on parenting, education, child development) and RightBrainChild.com (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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