Foam rollers are ubiquitous in gyms and many of us have invested in one. But do you really know what it’s for and are you using it correctly? Will Downing shows us the way.

The basics
Foam rollers are designed to release tension and tightness between the muscles and the fascia – the tissue that surrounds the muscle. This tension is normally caused by repetitive movements such as running or resistance training. Ignoring this tightness can lead to injury. Like a deep tissue massage, it essentially restores muscle length. Embrace the pain, it is doing you good.

The technique
Look for a trigger point: an area that feels tender to the touch. Then use your body weight to apply pressure to that area with the foam roller. Lie on it, sit on it, use your imagination. The harder you press down, the more muscle length you achieve. If an area really hurts, start slowly by supporting some of your weight with your arms and then gradually increase the pressure.

Common mistakes
Next time you see a gym-goer merrily rolling back and forth on a foam roller, be smug. They are doing it wrong. The trick is to find that tender trigger point and keep the roller on that point for 60 seconds. Concentrating on sensitive spots will help relax your muscles.

Which muscles should I target?
Spend a minute on each calf, targeting the soleus and gastrocnemius in particular (the big muscle in the middle of your calf and the smaller inner muscle). Then spend a minute on each quadricep and a minute on the upper back. The tibialis anterior, the outside part of your lower leg, is another good muscle to target as it is often associated with shin splints. Don’t forget to spend a little time on your gluteus muscles: these babies do a lot of work, especially when running, but not many people are aware of this.

Another common mistake that people make is to use a foam roller after exercise. The reality is that your muscles will benefit from being stretched beforehand because it prepares them for a workout and therefore prevents injuries. The two major receptors in your muscles are the spindle, which makes them contract, and the Golgi tendon organ, which makes them relax. They both need to be in balance in order to allow the tissue to work effectively, and foam rolling does exactly that.