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5 of the Best Rollers for National Foam Rolling Day

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See people at the gym massaging their legs and backs with foam rollers but never tried it yourself? Today’s the perfect time to give it a go: May 11 is National Foam Rolling Day (yes, there’s a holiday for everything).

Whether you’re a weekend warrior, a casual walker, or a couch surfer, there’s good reason you should take on the trend. Rolling on a foam cylinder or ball is like a free massage, and doing so loosens up your muscles and the surrounding fascia (a web of connective tissue that holds everything in place). This, in turn, helps your muscles move easier and in a bigger range of motion, lowers your chance of injury, and leaves you feeling relaxed. And it doesn’t take long at all—in fact, doing this self-massage for a mere two minutes is enough to increase your range of motion, according to recent research from the University of Newfoundland in Canada. Read on for some top tools to help you get rolling.

1. BEST FOR FIRST TIMERS: GOLD'S GYM 24-INCH ROLLER ($18.77)

Courtesy of Gold's Gym

Trying foam rolling for the first time? You can’t go wrong with this basic roller, which can be used to roll along any of the big muscle groups in your body. It’s not too dense or hard, so it won’t be too much pressure for newbies to use. Oh, and the price can’t be beat.

2. BEST FOR YOUR BACK: TRIGGERPOINT CORE FOAM ROLLER ($29.99)

Courtesy of TriggerPoint

This new offering comes in two sizes you’ll reach for all the time. The 36-inch option is the ideal length for lying across to release tightness in your thoracic spine, a.k.a. upper back—but it’s also great for massaging your quads, calves, and glutes, too. (Not firm enough for your taste? Try the brand's denser GRID X style to dig into muscles more deeply.)

3. BEST FOR DEEP KNOTS: SKLZ ACCUSTICK ($17.65)

Courtesy of SKLZ

Despite its appearance, this lightweight, curved bar isn't a tool to keep in your car's trunk—it's all you need to unwind the tightest spots in any muscle, even in tough-to-reach areas on your back and neck. Just position the ball on one end over the area that's bothering you and twist the bar around to work out the knot.

4. BEST FOR HANDS AND FEET: MELT METHOD HAND AND FOOT TREATMENT KIT ($49.99)

Courtesy of Melt

Big foam rollers work for your major muscle groups, but the smaller muscles in your hands and feet need teenier tools to help loosen them up. This kit, featuring several balls of various sizes, is tops for targeting these spots—but it works well to pinpoint tight knots on your back, neck, or anywhere else on your body too.

5. BEST FOR ACHES: SKLZ COLD ROLLER BALL ($37.17)

Courtesy ofSKLZ

If you’re recovering from injury or just have some inflammation after a tough workout, a little cold therapy may be in order. Stick this tool in the freezer and then rub it along the ache; it’ll unwind any tightness in the muscle and reduce swelling at the same time.

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Smiling Could Improve Your Athletic Performance—But Your Grins Can't Be Fake
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Athletes obviously enjoy breaking a sweat, but it’s not often that you’ll see one break into a smile while in the throes of competition. Yet that’s exactly what many coaches instruct them to do: Grinning mid-race has been said to relax muscles and boost physical performance. Recently, a group of researchers put this theory to the test, according to The New York Times. Their findings were published in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise.

Researchers from Ulster University in Northern Ireland and Swansea University in Wales instructed a group of 24 non-professional runners—both men and women—to shift between smiles and scowls while running on a treadmill. The volunteers were told that the experiment would measure how certain factors affected the amount of oxygen they used while jogging at various running speeds.

For the experiment’s first stage, runners wore face masks that measured their breathing. As they exercised until fatigue, researchers asked them to rate how they felt and report their coping strategies—for example, whether were they ignoring their pain or embracing it.

The study’s second segment required volunteers to engage in four individual runs, each lasting for six minutes. Mid-run, they were told to smile both genuinely and continuously, to scowl, to relax their torsos using a visualization technique, or to simply fall back on their usual endurance mindsets.

Smiles didn’t always improve runners’ performances. A few subjects picked up the pace while grimacing, possibly because these “game faces” made them ultra-determined to beat their personal records. But overall, runners with smiles were nearly 3 percent more efficient than normal. While seemingly insignificant, this difference is large enough to affect someone’s race performance, experts say.

Keeping in mind the study’s small size, the authors conclude that exercising while smiling might reduce muscular tension and thus amp up performance. But in order to gain this positive effect, athletes must beam genuinely. Fake smiles, like the kind you’ll see in school pictures, don’t work as many facial muscles, and therefore result in lower levels of relaxation.

Since it’s hard for anyone (let alone a focused athlete) to maintain an authentic smile during prolonged periods of strenuous activity, scientists suggest smiling near a race’s end, in 30-second intervals.

[h/t The New York Times]

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Marathon Running Won't Undo Poor Lifestyle Choices, Study Suggests
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Even marathon participants can't outrun an unhealthy lifestyle, according to a new study highlighted by The New York Times.

For years, expert opinion has been mixed on whether long-distance running helps or hurts hearts. In the 1970s, research suggested that marathon running and a heart-healthy diet would completely prevent atherosclerosis (a buildup of harmful plaque in the arteries). But since high-profile runners have died of heart attacks, scientists in the 1980s began to worry that running might actually harm the vital organ. Compounding this fear in recent years were studies suggesting that male endurance athletes exhibited more signs of heart scarring or plaques than their less-active counterparts.

Experts don't have a verdict quite yet, but researchers from the University of Minnesota and Stanford and their colleagues have some good news—running doesn't seem to harm athletes' hearts, but it's also not a panacea for heart disease. They figured this out by asking 50 longtime marathon runners, all male, with an average age of 59, to fill out questionnaires about their training, health history, and habits, and then examining them for signs of atherosclerosis.

Only 16 of the runners ended up having no plaque in their arteries, and the rest exhibited slight, moderate, or worrisome amounts. The men who had unhealthy hearts also had a history of smoking and high cholesterol. A grueling training regime seemed to have no effect on these levels.

Bottom line? Marathon running won't hurt your heart, but it's not a magic bullet for poor lifestyle choices.

[h/t The New York Times]

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