Foam rolling -- which involves undulating various parts of your body over foam cylinders -- is well known to help restore your natural range of motion, encourage proper body alignment, smooth out muscle knots and relax the muscles just like a deep tissue massage. It's all part of a process called myofascial release which sounds complicated, but all it takes is a simple cylinder made of stiff foam. Foam rollers are normally inexpensive can be purchased at most athletic goods stores.
Relaxnews: What kind of benefit can I expect to get out of this?
PT: First off, you'll probably notice instant improvement the first time you go out to play sports after foam rolling; you'll have less pain and be more supple. In the long term, pain relief is huge. For example, most people have some knee pain. I tell clients the knee is not the bad guy, the pain is collateral damage that comes from shortening the calves, which happens when we run, for example. It increases the pressure on the knee, creating the pain.
Relaxnews: I've never foam-rolled before. What's the best area to target first?
PT: To get rid of knee pain, start by foam-rolling the calves. Start at the end of the Achilles tendon because muscle is the only stuff that needs to be rolled. Roll up and down, at a moderate pace, in one to two inch undulations; when you start to feel the adhesions (the scars that result when muscles repair themselves, also refered to as muscle knots), keep rolling until they're gone. It's normal to feel a little pain, but it's not an exercise in pain tolerance, so don't go too far. Imagine your foam roller is a paint roller and make sure you get the inside and outside of each calf. Once you get comfortable with the process, you can go deeper into the muscle by crossing your legs, which adds more weight.
The best place to move next is the hip flexor, because that's where most people are tight, certainly desk jockeys. This is a small area to be rolled: Start by laying over the foam roller on your side, resting on the foam roller below the top of the hip bone. Place your opposite knee on the roller and roll down to the hip socket, which is where the femur attaches to the pelvis.
Relaxnews: What moves would you advise for creating proper body alignment?
PT: First, I'd advise buying a four-foot foam roller that's long enough to lie on, vertically. Placing your arms on the floor at either side, start by lifting your legs, keeping your knees bent, one after the other. When you get more comfortable, you can do sets lifting them together.
Relaxnews: Is this the best move for my back?
PT: Personally, I like to roll the upper back. It feels good, and it's highly restorative for the natural curvature of your spine. Don't be afraid if you hear a lot of little pops: It's like a free chiropractic adjustment. You can roll the back directly and you can lean to either side for more coverage.
Relaxnews: What else should I know about foam rolling?
PT: Consistency is important: it should be done before and after workouts, and it can and should be done for no reason at all. Also, bare in mind that hydration will effect cramping, so to reduce pain, drink water. Other than that, it depends on what you do. Runners need a maximum of moves due to the heavy impact they bear, and body builders will have more adhesions than most people. Women who wear high heels will have tighter calves. Also, never foam roll on bones or tendons, and avoid lymph nodes when rolling the latissimus dorsi muscles ("lats"). Some say they sleep great after foam rolling, which makes sense because it relaxes you just like a deep tissue massage.