Foam rolling therapy hits the mainstream

Caitlin Judd, a competitive runner and physical therapist, shows A.J. Sessions how to roll on his iliotibial band. Sessions, who plays baseball at Porter-Gaud, says foam rolling is becoming common in high school.

Foam rolling and other forms of self-"myofascial release" is becoming increasingly mainstream, but as it does, many are doing it wrong and have no clue why it works to prevent or heal injuries.

Myofascial release is a soft tissue therapy, involving putting direct pressure on sore "trigger points" that relaxes contracted muscles, improves blood circulation and stimulates the stretch reflex in muscles.

Many do it using a cylindrical "foam roller," which is joining the fitness family of low-cost, home exercise equipment, from dumbbells and Swiss balls to jump rope and kettlebells.

Caitlin Judd, a physical therapist at Island P.T. in North Charleston and a top local competitive runner, not only instructs clients - both athletes and non-athletes - on how to do the therapy using a foam roller or other devices but also foam rolls herself as part of her running regimen.

Judd, who won the Kiawah Island Marathon last month and was the Marcus Newberry Award winner for top local runner in the Cooper River Bridge Run, says that while rolling has been popular in running circles for years, many people are still unaware of its benefits.

"I've been using foam rollers ever since I've been running competitively, seven or eight years ago," says Judd.

"It's not a cure-all for running injuries, but it's still good. I think there are a lot of misconceptions about foam rolling and what it does ... A lot of people think it flushes metabolic wastes from muscles, but it doesn't do that. Your body is good at doing that on its own," says Judd.

But even many dedicated foam rollers, she says, are doing it wrong.

Rolling should involve seeking out sore knots, or trigger points, putting pressure on the spot and then gently rolling it out, not just rolling back-and-forth along the length of a muscle.

Judd says doing it right can be painful, but the rewards may be avoiding a sidelining injury.

Judd says foam rolling, and similar rolling techniques using a medicine ball, a hand roller or tennis ball, helps break up scar tissue and adhesions on muscle fascia, the connective tissue that surrounds muscles and groups of muscles.

"Foam rolling is really, really good for runners because runners have muscular imbalances, which lead to tears and adhesions in fascia. Foam rolling is not a cure-all because what's causing the problem, such as a tight IT band or tight hamstring, is usually caused by a muscle imbalance or something you are doing biomechanically," says Judd.

"But it's part of a whole process of keeping yourself healthy. It's a really good tool any time you have something sore or hurts."

She adds, however, that active people should do it every day because it's a "maintenance thing."

"It's easier to maintain everything rather than deal with a big problem that you let build up for weeks and weeks. ... So rolling every day, or a few times a week, is better than waiting until your hamstrings are locked up."

Derek Sessions, owner of Island P.T., says he has been using foam rollers in his clinic for nearly a decade, but that the idea of self-myofascial release is just now catching on in the public.

"It's becoming more mainstream," says Sessions. "Everything has to go through a fad stage. The things that stick are the ones that actually work and are functional. "

For example, Sessions thinks the newest fad for therapists is "elastic therapeutic taping," often referred to by the brand name Kinesio Taping, that involves attaching an adhesive to an injured muscle area to ease pain. Evidence that it works is scant.

Recent studies on foam rolling are validating what practitioners say.

A study published this month in "Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise," the official journal of the American College of Sports Medicine, says foam rolling relieves muscle soreness and improves range of motion.

And a study published in March 2013 in the "Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research" shows that myofascial release using a foam roller can improve range of motion without negative effects on strength, unlike stretching before a strength activity.

Sessions stresses, too, that people can achieve these benefits in a very affordable and accessible way. Foam rollers range in price from $12 to $65, while medicine balls range from $15 to $60. And neither take up a lot of space.

Reach David Quick at 937-5516.