Every day at CFO, you hear the words mobility and stability uttered by your coaches and peers, but what exactly do we mean? Well, look no further my friends, I am here to give a somewhat simple explanation of these mystical qualities and debunk a few common myths that maybe even you think are true. This will be a multi-part series on this topic, and in part 1, I will focus solely on mobility and specifically foam rolling.
To set the scene, let’s define the term mobility. When we speak about mobility, we are referring to having full range of motion in our joints. Examples are: being able to raise your hand all the way over your head with your arm straight without hyperextending your lower back, and being able to touch your heel to your butt in a prone position, also without hyperextending your lower back.
Now that we have a working definition of mobility, let’s discuss one of the techniques used to increase it, and that is foam rolling.
Physiology of Foam Rolling
To understand why we foam roll and how to properly implement it, we should first understand what happens inside our body when we do it. First, let’s throw out the thinking that rolling actually “breaks up” our muscle tissue or makes any structural change whatsoever, because it does not. It only provides our body with a neurophysiological signal to relax that area. This is why you feel less tightness after the fact.
Let’s back-track a bit. When we foam roll, we say to search for the tight, painful spots. What causes those “trigger points” are adhesions in the muscle, which most people call knots. These adhesions are just bundles of muscle fibers that are in constant contraction, therefore making that muscle/area feel tight. When we apply pressure to the area of the knot, our brain sends a signal to that muscle to release the tension and relax. Usually anywhere from 30 seconds to 2 minutes will be enough time to get the full benefit.
We know that as CrossFitters, we do tons of exercises and reps over the course of even one class, so foam rolling is essential to helping our bodies recover and relax.
How To Implement Foam Rolling Properly
Now that we know what foam rolling does for our body, we need to understand how to implement it on a daily basis.
The technique is pretty simple. First, start with big strokes over large areas (think quads or back) in search of those painful spots. Once you find one, stay on that spot until you feel the pain diminish or you feel the tightness release. Some spots may take longer or require more pinpoint pressure to relax. That’s where the lacrosse ball comes into play. Just remember that the more pinpoint the pressure is, the more painful it will be. Most people have a love/hate relationship with their foam roller. In my opinion, the benefits far outweigh the pain. Plus, we are CrossFitters, we are comfortable being uncomfortable.
Normally, we prescribe foam rolling after class to aid in recovery and relaxation from the workout, because we don’t want our muscles to be relaxed during a hard workout, or we would crumble underneath a heavy barbell. But there are some situations in which foam rolling before, or even during a workout is recommended.
Sometimes, we need to “turn off” hyperactive muscles that are too strong so we can strengthen weak muscles that are being inhibited. An example of this is the hip flexors and the glutes. If you sit all day or spend a lot of time in hip flexion, over time your body will adapt to this position and shorten your hip flexor muscles and effectively turn off your glutes (the opposing muscle group). In this case, foam rolling the hip flexors and activating the glutes before the workout is recommended to balance out the stronger and weaker muscles and to prevent injury.
Keep in mind this is only one example of many possible muscle imbalances in the body. A licensed manual tissue therapist, chiropractor, or physical therapist are great people to see if you want to know what muscle imbalances you have (trust me, we ALL have them). Blindly foam rolling areas that you think may be causing problems before a workout is generally not a good idea.
That’s it for today everyone. I hope this first installment helped you realize what foam rolling does and why it is so important for recovery and injury prevention. In the second part of this series, I will talk about a subject that is even more taboo: stretching. Stay tuned.