Lots of athletes, and many runners, own and use a foam roller on a regular basis. Some use it to “get out all the knots”, to allow their muscles to recover, to prepare for the next bout of hard work. Some use it prior to a training session to “wake up” their muscles. Some use it simply because it feels good. And it’s definitely true that the foam roller feels good, but is time spent on it really better than spending that time training? Are you using it correctly? And perhaps most importantly….are you really doing what you think you’re doing? Philosophical, eh? Here, I’ll give you some food for thought about foam rolling and what it actually does for your body. If, with this new knowledge, you still decide you want to foam roll, I’ll show you how to do it correctly and in a time-efficient manner.
What Does Foam rolling actually DO?
Scientists have been looking at this for several years, and it’s becoming apparent to us that….foam rolling doesn’t do what we think it does. It is not “self-myofascial release” at all – it’s actually physically impossible for you to release “muscle adhesions” (most scientists are skeptical that such a thing even exists) or “separate your fascia” or “break up knots” with your hands, a foam roller, even a block of foam….if you’ve ever been in a cadaver lab studying Anatomy and trying to cut through that stuff, you’ll understand what I mean. It takes surgical tools to do that!
Okay, so you’re not really changing your connective tissue at all. But it still feels good! It FEELS like you’re “getting knots out”, right? If it didn’t feel gratifying, you probably wouldn’t do it. And that’s why I’ll never say that “foam rolling doesn’t work” – it just simply doesn’t do what we thought it does.
What foam rolling likely DOES do, however, is modulate the way your muscles feel through NEUROPHYSIOLOGICAL input. This means that the foam roller provides a sensory input to your muscles. This sensation sends a signal to the brain. The brain then sends a return signal to those muscles – to “wake up”, perhaps, or to “relax”. You’re likely not changing the quality of your muscles and fascia through the foam rollers itself – but you MIGHT be changing they way they feel and behave by providing that input to your brain.
So….should you keep foam rolling? If you believe that it works for you then yes, absolutely! If you have been trying it and feel like it’s not helping you achieve whatever goal it is you’re after – better muscle activation, reduced soreness, “getting the knots out”, etc – then don’t waste your time on it. There aren’t any ways you can directly change tissue quality, but there are LOTS of different ways to reach your goals using your brain – what scientists call “neurophysiological input”. You can try dynamic stretching, static stretching even, or some other kind of massage/soft tissue work.
If you choose to continue foam rolling, here are some helpful tips for doing it right – getting the most neurophysiological effects for the least amount of time:
1 It only takes a few minutes:
About that “least amount of time” thing? Yeah, to get the benefits of foam rolling it really doesn’t take that long! Most research shows that as little as 30 seconds spent foam rolling a muscle group is enough to get input to your brain, and output back to those muscles. Remember, you are NOT actually breaking up adhesions or knots with this thing – so you don’t need to be on it for half an hour at a time. That’s just a waste of time that you could have spent training (the REAL bang for your buck in terms of overall health and mobility, after all, is good old fashioned exercise!).
2 Don’t Roll directly over an irritated tendon or nerve.
If you’re suffering from tendonitis – perhaps your achilles, or your hip flexor, or your lateral hip – or a nerve entrapment (like that darn sciatic nerve we all love to hate) – DO NOT roll directly over that tendon or nerve. All you are going to do is compress it, put pressure on it, which is just going to irritate it more. You’re better off rolling the muscles next to your hot spot, or just avoiding the area all together. Please, if nothing else – DO NOT FOAM ROLL DIRECTLY OVER YOUR IT BAND.
3 Trigger-point pressure vs rolling?
Do whatever feels best. Again, you cannot really make physiological changes to your tissue with a block of foam – the beneficial effects of foam rolling are mostly neural in nature. So, whether you roll up a muscle, down a muscle, or put pressure on certain spots – just do whatever feels best to you. If it feels like it’s working, that’s pretty much all the confirmation you need.
4 Pre vs Post workout?
Again, whatever feels best to you! As long as you are not bruising yourself or putting pressure on already irritated tendons and nerves, you’re not at risk of a performance decline by foam rolling before a workout. Foam rolling can be part of your warmup or cooldown – whatever fits into your schedule and whatever feels best!
Hopefully this clears up some of the myths behind foam rolling – what it does, what it doesn’t do, and some ways for you to get the most out of it.