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Here’s how to foam roll your way to peak fitness

Here’s how to foam roll your way to peak fitness

Diligent foam rolling may hold the key to pain management and improved performance

If Rhys Hamer had his way, the path to fitness would go like this: nutrition first, then foam rolling, then everything else.

At 40, Hamer is an intrinsic biomechanics coach in Dubai and what has to be the emirate’s biggest foam rolling fan.

He carries an assortment of equipment when he trains clients – golf and rubber balls, foam rollers, a sinister-looking stick – to enthusiastically help ease their pain and boost their performance through myofascial therapy.

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His goal is to stretch and loosen the body’s fascia, that spider web-like network of inner connective tissue that encases just about everything, including muscles and organs. The fascia is constantly forming sticky adhesions, and creating knots, which can refer pain to other areas, tighten some muscles, weaken others and cause the body to compensate during exercise, creating the perfect conditions for an injury.

That’s where diligently rolling it out comes in. Hamer recommends 20 to 30 minutes each day, combined with stretching and muscle activation.

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“If you are doing this consistently,” he explains, “you have the ability to look after your posture, reduce your risk of injury and pain and you’re able to exercise safely and efficiently. And that means you’re going to get better results, whatever it is, faster, leaner, stronger, complete body transformation. You’ve got to have balanced your body.”

Mat Dryden, the 33-year-old owner of Abu Dhabi’s Cobra Fitness, and a fighting trainer, credits Hamer with helping him out of an excruciating neck injury several years ago. An MRI showed two bulging discs, but after cutting the weight he was lifting, as well as reps, and showing Dryden how to roll out his trapezius muscle with the massage stick, the pain all but disappeared without the doctor-recommended surgery.

“Amazing,” says Dryden. “As long as my traps are rolled out, I’m fine.”

Fascia may be a buzzword now, but for most of mainstream medical history it has been all but ignored. In November experts gathered in Berlin for only the Fifth International Fascia Congress, where they presented the latest research in this fast-growing field. That included how fascia can be treated and manipulated for pain management, as well as further exploration into how it is involved in transmitting disease, can be damaged during surgery and studied after death.

For ordinary people, particularly those who sit all day at work, Hamer says rolling it out becomes even more important with age.

“If you’re stuck in a position like this for a long time, your muscles become fibrotic,” he says. “And that just means that they change their density, they can’t tense and contract properly, they actually lose that ability, they actually become tender. And that’s why people are stuck in to this terrible posture into their forties, fifties and sixties.”

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There are some rules: don’t lay the lower back (lumbar spine) flat on a foam roller, which can cause injury. Instead shift closer to your side and roll from the hip up to the middle back. And watch for tingling, which could be a sign you are getting too close to a nerve.

This kind of work isn’t for the faint of heart, especially for newbies. Working knots out of tight thighs on a roller or constricted foot arches on a golf ball can really hurt.

But that’s the very pain, says Hamer, that is “a sign that you need to be doing it regularly”.

And when it’s all done the sense of release is palpable, not to mention pain relief, a pretty zen calm and better, deeper sleep, that follows, too.

In the slightly longer term, Hamer promises pain relief, efficiency of movement, weight loss and greater fitness.

“It’s got to be a priority before you even think about training,” he says.

To get started on foam rolling basics, Hamer recommends going to YouTube for Trigger Point Therapy videos.

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