Maybe your shoulders are achy from time spent bent over a computer keyboard. Perhaps your running has tightened your quads and calves to the point of cramping.
Whatever the cause, foam rollers are an inexpensive and growing answer to tight muscles, soft tissue pain, knots and other problems connected to the fascial system, the web of soft, connective tissue in the body. Rollers stretch and massage the areas — and that helps athletic performance, says trainer Ashley Borden.
Borden and other trainers and teachers are using them in classes of all kinds, and gyms are stocking them.
"Rolling out opens you up; it's your own deep tissue massage," Borden says. "Which of us can afford a masseuse every morning before we work out?"
Borden met us at the bustling Fitness Factory L.A. in West Hollywood to show how rolling works. It's a tool, she says, "to trouble shoot your own body," and it can help with mobility, balance, alignment and relief from aches and pains.
But don't mistake it for a relaxing spa massage. Rolling out can range from comfortable to downright painful — not unlike the discomfort from a really strong stretch. But you should feel relief afterward.
Her own experience made Borden a fan of rollers. "I was a dancer, and I thought I had great posture," she said, adding that in training, she learned otherwise. So she began using rollers to adjust her alignment. "I saw how my body changed, and it felt better."
The idea is to target various places from head to toe where there are tight muscles or knots by getting into specific positions and rolling over the target area, generally 10 times, to ease the problem. Avoid rolling directly on bones or joints, Borden says.
She suggests trying the stretches before a workout or in the evening while watching TV. "I spend a lot of quality time with my roller," she joked.
Anyone feeling uncertain can consult a doctor or fitness professional, Borden said.
Rollers come in various levels of firmness. The softest roller is for people who are fragile for any reason. Borden uses PVC pipe, which has no give at all. She suggests it for those who like a tough workout. Some rollers have a soft outer grid. Most of them are compressed beads and keep their shape for a long time. There are even very short ones that fit in a carry-on suitcase.
Lots of brands are available online and in sports stores, from around $15 to $65. Lacrosse and other balls also can be used in a similar way to get at specific sore spots.
Borden has a downloadable guide to rolling out, available for free on her website, www.ashleyborden.com.