Foam Roller. Huh! What Is It Good For.

For those of you that sang “… absolutely nothing” after reading the title, you just gave away your age! Okay, fun over, foam rolling is a serious business and they are good for some things. 

Foam Rollers have become commonplace in the gym and in countless YouTube videos. In fact, I’d suggest they are being overused in many cases because of a misunderstanding of why we use them. Just by reading this short article you will be in the most informed group of people possible for the using your roller. So without further ado, here are the simple Dos and Don’ts.

Dos

Do use a roller if you are sitting much of the day: The Foam Roller was originally conceived as a self massage tool. The idea was that you could spend 10 minutes rolling up and down your body after a day sat at the desk to replicate the effleurage strokes massage gives you. And why not? Massage is a great tool for unwinding the tension of a day spent inactive. 

Do use rollers and balls to improve mobility: If you have a joint that doesn’t sit in an optimal place for your chosen activities, it is often wise to improve range of motion. Stretching just doesn’t always get into the tissues like you would want so a roller or ball can help. My only caution is that you shouldn’t try to ‘beat up’ the tissues like many YouTube videos will show you. Research shows that connective tissues respond best to a pumping like action that promotes hydration. So press and move the ball or roller into then back off of the stiff area repeatedly for around a minute, then do some strength exercises to use the new range straight after. 

Do use to manage Trigger Points: Trigger Points are small areas of tenderness in a muscle that refer discomfort elsewhere. A simple treatment technique manual therapists use is to compress and hold on these points for up to one minute to release the tissue. You can do this with a roller or ball yourself and is often something I recommend as a home care exercise to my clients. 

Don’ts

Don’t “smash” the tissues: Originally promoted by Dr Kelly Starrett of CrossFit fame, the “Tissue Smash” has been widely adopted into the exercise culture. Kelly Starrett is a Dr of Physiotherapy and knows when to work tissues hard and when to leave them alone. This knowledge hasn’t translated well to the general public. Research shows that connective tissues can take hundreds of kilograms of force without deforming. So beating them up will only result in damage over time, not improved range. Instead of smashing, try the pumping technique I spoke about above. 

Don’t use on painful areas: This can seem like a contradiction after reading about Trigger Points above. Trigger Points are tender but will release and ease with gentle compression. Other tender areas don’t. If gently pressing a ball into tender tissue doesn’t ease the issue it is likely not a Trigger Point. The paradox is that ramming a ball or roller into painful tissue often eases the pain temporarily. Why? Because causing more pain releases Endorphins (Endogenous Morphine) into the bloodstream. This natural morphine high kills pain temporarily, giving you the sense that you helped the problem go away. But what really happened is that you irritated the damaged tissues with the ball but can’t feel it because of the Endorphin high. 

Don’t roll hard and fast: The biggest mistake is the same one many people expect of Sports Massage Therapists – That if it isn’t painful, it isn’t working. This is again a misunderstanding of physiology both in the general public and in old school pain invoking massage therapists. For the reasons stated above, causing pain with a roller or massage only feels like it benefitted you because of Endorphin release. The reality is that you’ll likely become even tighter because the body protects itself through muscular tension as a reflex to pain. So go gently. Discomfort for rolling or massage should never really go beyond a 6/10 in your personal pain scale. If you want to get deeper into the tissues then slow down the speed at which you roll. This allows your nervous system to remain calm and not tighten you up.

Rolling to a conclusion

Foam Rollers a Massage Balls can be very useful self management tools. I try to opt for medium firm products rather than rock hard ones. I prefer a rubbery sponge ball to a lacrosse ball for example. The key is to pump and stretch the tissues, like a quality Sports Massage does, rather than smash and abuse the tissues with pain like a bad Sports Massage does.

If you follow the dos and don’ts above you’ll get the most out of your roller and see progression. I use mine regularly to manage the stiffness in my legs from a long day at work and to improve my climbing reach. It’s a great tool when used well, so enjoy using it and if you have any questions then please get in touch.

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