BY ALLISON BATDORFF
— TRAVERSE CITY — The foam roller seems friendly at first.
The lightweight log is good for “bonking” someone you don’t really want to hurt.
It’s approachably priced. Its smooth Styrofoam construction repels lint, hair and unseemly gym floor odor.
But lie down on it and friend becomes foam ... err, foe.
The roller lurches wildly, then wobbles in 1,000 places at once. Unfamiliar muscles twitch and quiver. The "powerhouse" core reveals itself as shaky jelly.
“You can’t cheat the roller!” chirped Bridgit Frank.
Slacking off is easy on a mat, explained the Traverse City Pilates instructor. But foam rollers expose all, which is blessing and bummer to Frank’s students in both her downtown Traverse City Village Pilates studio and in classes at the Traverse City Senior Center.
“You can’t multitask or think about what you’re doing later,” Frank said. “You have to focus on the roller to stay on it. This awareness is one of the best things about them.”
Focus is one feat among many. The innocuous cylindrical objects are the Clark Kent of the fitness world. Injury prevention, toning and strengthening, increased range of motion, and help with balance, alignment and self-massage are just a few bullet points on the roller’s bright resume.
Its popularity as a mechanism for myofascial release launched “foam rolling” as a verb and now rollers are common features in gyms, yoga studios, basements and office buildings. The fascia is connective tissue beneath the skin where knots and trigger points form. The theory is that breaking up – or rolling out – those knots speeds blood flow to sore muscles, accelerating recovery and providing a valuable stretching tool.
“I sell foam rollers every day,” said Marc McCombs, a personal trainer at the Traverse City retail store Running Fit. “I sell them to high school students, senior citizens and everyone in between. It’s a craze, though I wouldn’t call it a fad.”
McCombs swears by foam rolling. He tugged up a pant leg to reveal scabs from a recent knee surgery. He tore his meniscus in both knees, and underwent the same surgery, two years apart. Age and overuse were the primary culprits, said the 39-year old runner who clocks in 30-40 miles in a "healthy" week.
But where McCombs’ right knee recovery was halting and painful, his left knee sprang back to regular duty. Two weeks post surgery he is back on the elliptical trainer and ready to resume road-running. He credits foam rolling for the diminished down time and said the results surprised even him a foam roller devotee.
"Is it a magic pill? Probably not, but it helped me more than I imagined," McCombs said.
Running Fit carries several models of foam rollers ranging in price from $12 to $80. Density is the primary difference between rollers as people seek the right “give.” A swim noodle is too squishy for rolling because the foam has to push back to work. Sizes vary too. Some are as long as a florescent light bulb and others are squat, packaged for rolling “on the go.” The “rumble roller” is treaded Iike a medieval mace. This for “serious” rolling, McCombs said.
So how does one “foam roll?” It’s like rolling off a log, actually, only not at all easy. Foam rolling pits the body weight against itself in a series of strategic positions, depending on the individual goal. Rolling out the “IT,” or iliotibial band, is a popular exercise where you hold yourself up, place the outside thigh on the roller and move back and forth from hip to knee. Some people do a side plank pose and roll out arms, shoulders to fingers.
"You can use it anywhere hams, quads, wherever there's tightness," McCombs said.
But even lying limp on the roller isn’t easy. It slips, slides and sends the body into primal core clenching just to stay aboard.
“I fell off my first time,” said Sandy Robey, a retired Traverse City librarian. “It feels like a bucking bronco when you start.”
The pain also unnerves beginners, Robey said.
“You just hear groans when it’s time to do the IT bands,” said Robey of her senior Pilates class. “Some people really don’t like it.”
Yet pain typically means that you're "rolling" in the right direction, McCombs said.
“I tell people that it’s supposed to be uncomfortable,” McCombs said. “If you’re too comfortable, you’re probably doing it wrong.”
Bruising is also fairly common for people new to the practice because of the body weight pressing down on the rollers, he said.
There is a contingent of foam roller detractors in the fitness world who caution that “the burn” is counterintuitive to making muscles soft and yielding. But most foam roller flack is rooted in the lack of empirical evidence on its effectiveness. Conclusive research has not been gathered either for or against the practice, as the fascia how it works and its function is also just beginning to be understood.
Emily Henry, a certified nurse assistant and massage therapist, said that she does not recommend foam rolling for elderly people who don't exercise regularly, folks with mobility issues and those who are extremely overweight.
Everyone else should give it a shot, she said. Just get fitted first and don’t forget the roller in the basement with the rest of the gym equipment, Henry said.
“I use them constantly in my work and see it in a lot physical and occupational therapy now,” Henry said. “The broadening and compression you can achieve is even better than pressing down with fingers.”
Is she concerned that self-massage will squish her massage therapy business?
On the contrary, she gives her clients foam rollers to work with at home as a way to keep the body stretched, strong and limber between sessions.
“All of my foam rollers are loaned out right now,” Henry said. “They are part of my clients' homework. If they do the homework, they will see a difference.”