The Foam Rolling Discussion

“Did you foam roll yet?” No. “Go foam roll. You should foam roll more often.” When? “Before your workout, after your workout, during your workout, when you wake up, before bed, pretty much always.” Why? “Because it’s good for your muscles.”

Many people involved in some form of physical fitness have had a similar conversation with a peer or perhaps a trainer, therapist, or sport coach at some point. Confusion exists because people are being bombarded with the importance of foam rolling, without being told any substantial reason as to why. The result is an absent or insufficient foam rolling practice that may lead to problems as insignificant as curiosity or being guilted by a coach, or as significant as injury. So, let’s try to correct that.

What is foam rolling?

First and foremost, understand that foam rolling is only one modality of achieving a broader concept of soft tissue mobilization (STM). This is what we are really trying to achieve through the use of a foam roller, but it is merely a tool in the toolbox along with anything that can apply pressure to a muscle. Other tools might be your hands, a therapist’s hands, a lacrosse ball, a softball, baseball, a PVC pipe, the floor, a wall, a barbell, a kettlebell, massage stick, etc.  The concepts that make a foam roller effective apply to all of these tools. They differ in surface area, density, precision, control, force application, and need for assistance. The choice of which tool to use would depend on the body part you are trying to work on, your reason for performing STM, your tolerance to STM, and your resources available. There are numerous styles and goals of STM including myofascial release (freeing up the layers of connective tissues and muscles from each other), trigger point release (releasing knots), and sustained pressure (reducing muscle tension).

Why should I do soft tissue work?

In an ideal world, muscles and tissues would stay loose, pliable, and strong no matter what we do to them. But, as we know, they don’t. Life happens. We overwork our muscles. We sit inactively for sustained periods of time. We develop anxiety. We get nutritional or hydration imbalances. We have asymmetries in our body. We have flawed movement mechanics. Some of these problems are preventable, some are not.  These factors can cause muscles to become tense, as if they are in a minor state of contraction constantly. They can form trigger points, where small segments of muscle can become very contracted, putting tension on the rest of the muscle and preventing metabolic waste from leaving the area. The layers of tissue in our body can become adhered, or stuck, to each other. All of these can be painful. All of these can reduce our mobility. All of these can reduce our performance. All of these can lead to injury.  We should work to prevent tissue restriction as much as we can using things like technique correction, improving hydration, stress management techniques, etc. But when tissue restrictions develop, fortunately we can use our STM techniques to fix them. We can free our tissue layers, we can relax our stiff muscles, we can release our trigger points, we can reduce pain, and we can maximize performance. We aren’t just making ourselves “softer,” we are making our tissues more resistant to stress, loads, and lengthening. By that logic, we are making ourselves tougher.

How do you do soft tissue work?

As you probably assumed, we have techniques that work best for each type of tool being used and for each muscle we are targeting, but I’m assuming “ask a physical therapist” isn’t the answer you were looking for. Here’s the general principle that should let you figure out how to release just about all the tight spots you have: find the spots that your muscles are tender or stiff feeling, choose a tool that seems like the appropriate shape and size to reach your tender zone, and put your body part on it or it on your body so that gravity uses your or its weight to compress the tender area. Just stay still in that position until you can tolerate the “good hurt” sensation, and then add oscillations moving your body or the tool so that it passes back and forth over the tender area. Spend as much time as you need until you feel the tension decrease, but 2-3 minutes is the widely recommended duration. Fair warning- this will be uncomfortable at first, but go into it knowing that it is an uncomfortable investment that you decided to do to make yourself better. Soon enough, you’ll appreciate the sensation and may develop a mild addiction. Warning #2- you are trying to put the pressure over muscles. If you feel like you are rolling over a piece of bone, you likely are, so don’t do that. If you are getting burning, tingling, numbness, or pulsing sensations, you might be rolling on a nerve or artery, so don’t do that either.

When should I do soft tissue work?

Any time of the day it is a good time to mobilize your soft tissues. To make things more easily understood or more manageable, think about what your individual restrictions are (maybe you don’t know, and maybe you should get a movement assessment, which will be featured in a future article). Does muscle stiffness make you immobile? Then grab a lacrosse ball and get to work before you squat to give yourself the most range of motion you can for proper technique. Tend to feel achy after your runs? Maybe use a foam roller to restore pliability after your 10k. Have a knot in your upper trap? Spend some time on it during lunch break. Find yourself sitting on the couch watching TV? I doubt Jimmy Fallon would be offended if you break out the massage stick. If you dedicate 5 minutes before a workout, 5 minutes after a workout, and 5 minutes at another point throughout the day to doing some mobility work, it might seem like a tedious time investment at the start, but your time invested will surely “pay for itself” in the amount of time you save rehabbing a preventable injury or training endlessly to perfect your snatch technique when the problem really might lay in your shoulder mobility.

Closing Thoughts

In my experience, there are three main reasons why people don’t do any self-soft tissue work: lack of understand why it is beneficial, lack of a good strategy of when or how to implement it, or laziness.  I’d encourage you to learn more about this topic and spend more time thinking about the most time-efficient way to implement this into your routine. Now that you have some background in the topic, don’t let laziness be your limitation.

  • January 22, 2018

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