A Lesson in Foam Rolling

The benefits of foam rolling are equally well-known and mysterious. Touted as improving all manner of things: Blood circulation, deep tissue and tendon flexibility, recovery time, etc. owning and using one is all the rage. Suffice to say I occasionally grab a foam roller in the gym and pull, roll, drag myself over the contraption with all the grace of an elephant seal.

Foam roller

My physio told me it would help my ACL, or IT band, or something like that, so I engage in this bizarre ritual without a real clue of what I am doing and how it is really offering improvement to my so-called fitness journey. All I know is it hurts like hell, so must be doing some good. 

So when my similarly clueless friend suggested a foam rolling workshop, taught by qualified physiotherapists I decided to embrace the pain and the learning opportunity. Based in Clapham, Balance Performance Physiotherapy has a no frills exercise studio in addition to its treatment rooms. You are not attending a class here for the gorgeous lighting and fancy sound system; this is back to basics and importantly, getting those basics right. The equipment is top notch, the facilities are clean and spacious, but the winning element is that their instructors are physios and they seriously know their stuff.

Foam rolling

An hour class on foam rolling sounds lengthily, but as suspected you are supposed to take your time with this torture device - the slower the movement and the longer you spend concentrating on a muscle group the greater the benefit (ish). Aside from this lesson that I begrudgingly already knew, here are four lessons that I took away with me:

1. The benefits are time constrained

Much like sports massages, the physical relief from foam rolling is immediate and felt for up to ten minutes after. This was brand new information. The consequence being you should do it before exercising to release tight muscles not just after to aid recovery. There are also no gains from rolling the same muscles for extended periods of time.

2. You don't have to be a human seesaw

While rolling back and forth over the muscle is the technique most frequently seen across gyms, you can also keep still, placing pressure through one particular point. Another option is to move the joint below the area of focus - for example moving the ankle from side to side or up and down if working on the calves / hamstrings. 

3. Stretching is more important

For general fitness, prevention and treatment of injuries stretching trumps foam rolling. This was surprise to me, since in my head they were on par. But we were firmly instructed to ditch the foam rolling for stretching if we weren't going to do both. 

4. Attack the surrounding areas too

It makes sense, since all the tissues, tendons and muscles are connected. Instead of focusing on the problem area, you should also look to release the surrounding muscles. Deep down I probably knew this, but had chosen to ignore it based on not wanting to inflict more pain on myself. 

The class was good, if a tad masochist, and very informative. Would I go back? Probably not, since I imagine I learned everything I can from a group foam rolling session and now I just need to actually do the exercises. That said, I would definitely recommend as a one off if you are struggling from an injury, want to improve your practice or are training for a major event such as a marathon. The class had a mixture of people: The curious, the injured and the crazies running marathons.

Milk Balham Coffee

Once you're done, nip over to Balham to grab a delicious and deserved reward. After all, what is a weekend without an exercise class followed by brunch?

I have to say, it is the best coffee I had in London for a while - I had to break my rule of one a day to order a second which I didn't have the patience to take a photograph of. Flavoursome enough to enjoy without its namesake, dare I say this is one of the few coffees I would choose to have black or with the smallest smidge of MILK.


If you are interested, a winning factor is that the workshop is free, yes, FREE. So really you have nothing to lose especially if you combine it with brunch. It runs every Sunday at 10am, all you need to do is book in through their MindBodyOnline, then brace yourself for the pain.

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A lesson in foam rolling at Balance Performance Physiotherapy - South London