In this article we question whether the sheer agony of foam rolling is actually worth it! Does the pain pay off and make lasting changes that will solve all of your injury woes and keep you pain free?
We’ll be trawling the latest research into the proposed benefits and effects of foam rolling and cross referencing that with the real life experience of our clients.
What Is The Benefit Of Foam Rolling?
As with many fads in physiotherapy the proposed benefits can be a little exaggerated in certain articles. This article here, for example, confidently states that it:
- Alleviates soreness
- Reduces inflammation
- Aids muscle repair
- Helps injury prevention
- Increases blood flow and elasticity of muscles
- Promotes relaxation
I mean wow. That sounds amazing. The evidence is sadly not that conclusive. That said the article does have a very good section on introducing people to how to use their foam roller which I recommend you have a look at if you’re looking to try to roll for the first time.
Let’s see what the research is suggesting.
Is There Any Evidence For Foam Rolling?
Research is always some distance behind what is happening in the real world. Research is designed to support, or refute, what we are seeing clinically. As to whether things are working how we think they are working is another matter altogether!
There is not huge swathes of research on foam rolling as it is relatively new to the physiotherapy world. Anything less than 30 years old is new to the physiotherapy world by the way! Below are links to the best pieces of research I could find and a synopsis of what they’re conclusions are:
- In the short term foam rolling increases your joint range of motion. It did not decrease the amount of force a muscle can produce. No research available to suggest or refute whether it can help with pain.
- Using a foam roller is better for flexibility than dynamic stretching. Dynamic stretching being when you move around to warm the muscles up rather than standing still and stretching. Dynamic stretching was however better for improving a vertical leap than a foam roller so perhaps better for getting more out of your muscles.
- 3 consecutive days of foam rolling increased muscle strength
- Foam rolling reduces Delayed Onset Muscles Soreness (DOMS)
- Less fatigue when training after foam rolling
I’ll give that another wow! That was a lot better research and a lot more conclusive than I was expecting to find. Perhaps I should be dusting off my foam roller? Or selling them from this webpage!
We haven’t got to the real world yet though have we? And there is an obvious drawback to foam rolling… it really hurts!
Why Does Foam Rolling Hurt So Much?
Anyone who has done any kind of foam rolling will know that it can really hurt! It does have a bit of a reputation for being one for the sadists who like to punish themselves. But just why does it hurt?
One theory what makes sense to me is that is collections of waste products caused by muscles and / or fascia working too hard. These are the painful areas. These areas are often referred to as trigger points.
These ‘trigger points’ lead to a loss of performance in muscle and a lack of flexibility or elasticity within the muscles and fascia. This theory is discussed in depth in this excellent article which discusses in greater depth just why foam rolling hurts.
If goes on to explain how muscle fascia has properties whereby it becomes more malleable when it is moved. Perhaps this is a factor in the benefits we see from using a foam roller. In the same article however exercise physiologist Dr Lewis Macgregor suggests that the changes are more likely to come from neurological changes. That is the pain leads a message being sent from the brain telling the structures to relax.
In the article Dr Macgregor honestly points out that ‘scientists can still only speculate about the exact mechanisms’ of what is happening. I couldn’t agree more. It’s the same in pretty much everything within the physiotherapy world. We are trying to ‘guess’ reasons for the results we see.
I generally like to sit on the fence on these things as is the case with this one. From my experience as a hands on therapist I would say trigger points are definitely a thing that can be found and do cause pain. You can actually feel trigger points in muscle, fascia and tendons. So the waste product idea sits well with me.
But, as you hold a trigger point you cans feel it let go. It does also feel as if they brain is sending that message and you can feel the tension giving up and letting go.
Can Foam Rolling Be Harmful?
Yes! And no. It is very hard to truly damage tissues. You’ve got to really be going for it to do so. If you see tiny little capillaries on your skin then yes you probably have done some damage but nothing to worry about. Just take that as a sign to calm down!
What we have seen at the clinic is a lot of people who make their condition worse by using a foam roller. This can be from just doing too much of it and making the condition more sensitised.
In some cases though they haven’t done much at all and still made it worse. We find that some areas are just too sensitised to respond to the pressure of a foam roller. They seem unable to let go of their tension.
We see this repeated with out hands on work when we are doing the muscle or fascia release for you. Sometimes areas just don’t want to let go. Experience has taught me that this normally means something is not letting it release. In biomechanics terms is can mean something that is connected to this area needs to be released in order for this area to be able to let go.
This can physical or it can be emotional. To read more about the mind body connection and it’s impact on the pain you feel read our previous article: How to reduce pain using the mind body connection.
As a practical point. If an area is simply not letting go and / or is very painful for a few days after rolling just leave it be. Try rolling a different area or try a completely different approach and see if that helps instead.
What’s The Clinical View Of Foam Rolling?
Some people do get benefit from foam rolling. Whether that be from a flexibility perspective or helping to manage a painful condition. If this is you by all means carry on. But please also consider whether you are addressing the root cause of the problem. If you have to keep foam rolling an area repeatedly to keep going you probably need to review what you are doing or at least how you are doing it.
Commonly it will be that your biomechanics are out of kilter and we need to address this so you can leave your foam roller to gather dust and you can enjoy your time following less painful pursuits.
Some people continue foam rolling as if duty bound. They haven’t really felt any benefit but carry on anyway. Perhaps a friend or a coach said they should be doing it. If this is you, please stop.
And there’s a final small category that we see of people who genuinely punish themselves too much and keep making things worse. Often out of sheer desperation. This just increases the sensitivity of their body and their condition. If this is you, you really do need to stop!
How Should I Foam Roll?
As a basic entry level approach apply pressure to the bit that hurts and make it hurt a bit. Focus on your breathing whilst you wait for the pain to subside and for the release to happen. If it doesn’t ease off or it’s just too excruciating then there’s probably a deeper reason why that area is being held tense and you may be better off working on that. I wouldn’t recommend staying on any one point more than 10 seconds at a time.
You could research into what’s connected to what using the Anatomy Trains model that has a very easy to follow pictoral representations of the intricacies of these connections. This may give you new insight into how to release off you own tenson and pain.
Is There A Better Way Than Foam Rolling?
Yes, of course there is. We would of course recommend coming to see ourselves or similar like-minded practices. I’ll outline our approach to injury here with some hopefully useful tips to help you get an idea of what is possible and how you can use this with foam rolling to increase the chance of it working for you.
Firstly it’s important to get your nervous system nice and malleable. What I mean by this is that it’s ok to get stressed. But what’s less ok is to stay stressed all the time. This keeps us sensitised and we simply feel more pain, especially when foam rolling!
Whilst there is very little in this world we do control we do have some control over our response to it. That response is usually best when we are calm in ourselves and our nervous systems are not constantly on edge. To help in this regard please check our previous article on how to be more mindful to help bring that nervous system into a better place.
Next we like to assess how you move generally and how you move when attempting movements that cause pain. With our experienced eyes can we see anything non-optimal in the way you walk, run, squat, sit. Any movement or posture that is relevant to you we are interested in.
Can we see more tension than we would expect as you move? Is there more tension on one side of the body than the other? Is there a pre-empting of pain leading to a subconsciously fearful movement pattern?
We then use our whole body understanding of biomechanics to try to understand and release the sub-optimal movement pattern. As quoted in the article we mention previously. “The Iliotibial (IT) band is just a big, long, band of connective tissue, so rolling it won’t necessarily ‘release’ it.” This sentiment we agree with wholeheartedly. We have to understand and treat the reason why the IT Band is tight for a long lasting resolution.
We talk about the ITB here as if everyone has heard of it which I don’t normally do in my articles. That’s because if you’re reading an article about foam rolling you probably already know where it is as it’s the most commonly rolled tissue. If you don’t know where the ITB is check the picture below of a representation of the Anatomy Trains lateral line. The ITB is the bit on the outside of the thigh.
This picture nicely shows the connections of the ITB beyond where it sits itself. Tension of any of these areas can be holding and maintaining the tension in the ITB itself. These areas should be considered as options to release before trying to release the ITB. Not all areas on this line are suitable for foam rolling.
This is just one example of many of areas that can hold tension on the ITB. It’s a good place to start but there are so many options it’s always best to consult a professional. Ideally one who’s a massive biomechanics geek!
Finally, in the scope of this article at least, we need to consider things may be too tight because they are simply being overused. There will be an element of this in all cases. Many of us amateur athletes keep going to try to improve ourselves. Admirable. But when do we actually take a break from training?
Not a break when you’re injured or ill. Nor a day off training with a hangover on a Saturday or Sunday. Those don’t count. How many of us take a genuine break from our training just to allow some recovery? If this is ringing a bell with you then please read our Peak Performance article which extolls the virtues of regular rest periods for maintaining our best physical and mental self.
So… Does Foam Rolling Actually Work
So the research would suggest that yes indeed foam rolling does do something. Particularly in regard to improving range of movement immediately after. Does it fix the underlying movement pattern that causes the problem in the first place? No.
Our view at the clinic is that you can use foam rolling as part of your recovery from heavy training. But it’s unlikely to solve any under lying injury problems you have. It may temporarily ease them and perhaps enable you to squeeze a little more out of your body. But it won’t solve them.
Foam rolling can be made more effective by having an assessment from an experienced therapist. They will be able to identify the areas that are causing the issue rather than just rolling the symptomatic tight bit over and over again.
As a therapist, however, I feel I’m failing if we have to resort to foam rolling as we haven’t got to the bottom of why things are really tight. We’re happy to resort to it if we really need to need to. If your training demands require it.
However, we prefer to find that unique combination of factors in you that is causing the tension. If you’d prefer to dish out pain to yourself indefinitely on a regular basis then you go for it!
As a general rule we usually say that if you genuinely feel that foam rolling is giving you some benefit then carry on doing it. If it isn’t. Don’t feel obliged to keep going. Look for something else that might get to the bottom of what it is that ails you.
If you’d like more information on how our approach can help you recover from all those tight bits and injures please refer back to our Brighton Physiotherapy and Sports Therapy homepage. If you’d like to speak to us as to how we can help you please click the Get In Touch button below
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