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Rolling Out for Recovery

After a good bouldering session, your muscles may feel sore and tight. How does one fix this? There are multiple ways to relieve the tension, and one of them is called foam rolling.

What is Foam Rolling?

So, what is this weird practice? According to Runner’s World magazine, a foam roller is a self-massage tool that can be used pre or post session to increase mobility and speed up recovery.

A classic foam roller is a firm log about six inches in diameter and three feet long, made of polyethylene foam or EVA. Manufacturers often color-code their rollers based on firmness, with white usually the softest and black the firmest. Reds and blues have a medium hardness. There are many variations of these, including shorter, hollow rollers with raised areas for extra pressure. Over time, foam rollers can lose their firmness and effectiveness.

How Does Foam Rolling Help?

Using a foam roller under my calf.

Foam rollers can perform myofascial release around muscles. “Myofascial” refers to the fascia, the connective tissue that surrounds your muscles and allows movement. This internal webbing can stiffen with repetitive motions such as bouldering.

By decreasing muscle tension in tight spots, a foam roller can provide some of the benefits of deep-tissue massage. In other words, using a foam roller moving under the targeted sore muscles aids relaxation and help them heal faster. Plus, it can help prevent injuries.

Usually, one rolls the sore body part back and forth on top of the foam roll, but also it’s used as a pressure point of contact. Trigger points respond much better to direct pressure; a foam roller is one way to apply pressure safely.

Here are some tips from Runner's World on efficiently using a foam roller:

Which Muscles Should I Roll?

Now that we know how beneficial rolling can be, here are some suggestions from Climbing Meta for how to use it.

Things to Look for In a Foam Roller

When buying a foam roller, REI Co-Op has some recommendations.

Density: Foam rollers come in different densities and thicknesses, which determines how they feel. These are primary factors in how effective they are at deep-tissue massage. If you’re starting out with using a foam roller, choose one on the softer side. As your technique improves and your muscles adapt, you can progress to using a denser (harder) roller.

However, softer rollers can become deformed after lots of use, which is an indication that it’s time to replace them. A simple way to test is to squeeze rollers to assess their firmness.

My new grey textured foam roller.

Surface texture: Some foam rollers have ridges and knobs for applying different amounts of pressure while others are smooth. Smooth rollers are designed to provide even pressure across the length of the roller. These rollers are excellent for someone who’s trying rolling because the force isn’t as intense as with a textured roller. Also, smooth rollers are usually cheaper than textured ones.

Textured rollers mimic the hands of a masseuse. Ridges and knobs on a foam roller can provide a better-targeted massage to work out knots in your muscles.

Shape and size: The shape and size of the foam roller affect how you use it.

Length: Long rollers (around 36 in.) are versatile and a great choice for your first foam roller. They work well for your back because they’re long enough to span your entire back when placed perpendicular to the spine. They’re also more stable than shorter rollers when you’re working on your quads, hamstrings and other body parts.

Shorter lengths (around 24 in.) work well to target smaller areas like arms and calves. The shortest ones (about 4 - 12 in.) work well for portability and in workout areas with limited floor space.

Diameter: Most rollers are 5 or 6 inches in diameter, which is a comfortable height for easing your body onto and then rolling under control. Some people choose 3- or 4-inch diameter rollers for deeper, more targeted massage.

Rolling Myself Out

Using a foam roller under my back.

I’ve gone ahead and bought a foam roller. I was hoping to find a soft and smooth 24-inch roller but ended up with a textured and kind of squishy 18-inch. I saw some that were smooth and 24-inch, but they felt hard. So, I went with one I thought would work.

Confession: when researching for this article, I had to watch videos on how to correctly roll because I didn’t know how. In my opinion, using the foam roller is a mini exercise in of itself. Having to keep myself propped up while using it under my legs isn’t what I was expecting. It makes me feel a little uncoordinated despite feeling good.

When I try rolling the middle and lower back, I feel like I’m at the chiropractor’s and I’m getting my back adjusted, which is the point. I might have to watch a few more video for rolling the upper back because I keep sliding off the roller while moving. I don’t mind the texture, but I think it might be too hard.

There must be a learning curve for using a foam roller. Or I picked up the wrong one. We’ll see how this goes and I’ll try to keep you updated. I hope this information helps you if you decide to buy a roller or not. Until next time, happy bouldering.