Foam Rolling: The Facts

In most gyms today you’ll find people walking in and grabbing a foam roller, plonking themselves down on the floor and start foam rolling before their training. I know I have my clients come in and do this before their sessions. However, does everyone know how to foam roll correctly rather than mindlessly rolling for hours on end?

In answer to the question above, I would suggest most people have been told foam rolling lengthens the muscle and breaks down scar tissue. Strictly speaking, the research surrounding foam rolling doesn’t support these claims of how foam rolling works. For that to happen, you would have to produce a crazy amount of force, which unfortunately the human body can’t produce.

But why do I feel better and ‘looser’ after I foam roll? That is a great question.

The reason behind this is because foam rolling seems to be more neurophysiological than it is physical. This basically means that when you foam roll, you decrease muscle tone. Muscle tone is the constant, passive contraction of a muscle subconsciously controlled by your brain. With this in mind, sometimes the feeling of tightness is down to muscle tone rather than muscle length. So when it comes to foam rolling, the pressure you put on the muscle from the foam roller disrupts how the brain controls the muscle, reducing the muscle tone or perceived tightness. That is why you feel better and ‘looser’.

Now you know about muscle tone, I should mention to you that under no circumstances you should foam roll your IT band. Your IT band is not a muscle. Your IT band is a tendon that’s connects your hips, quads and hamstrings together. With your IT band being a tendon, it can’t have tone. Therefore, if you feel you have a tight IT band, foam the muscles surrounding it. If you foam roll your IT band, you’re only causing yourself unwanted pain.

But how long should I foam roll for? That is another great question.

The actual benefits of foam rolling, feeling better and looser, are short lived. Mostly people will foam roll for anywhere from 10-30 minutes. For me, that is just a waste of time where you could be doing something more beneficial before training which involves some movement.

From the research, there is no definitive answer on how long you should foam roll for. In some studies it has been shown that short bouts of 10-60 seconds can be effective. The method I like to use is pretty simple. This is, how does it feel? If it feels less tight or less sore, that’s enough foam rolling. Alongside that, you don’t foam roll something that isn’t sore. Again, that’s just a waste of time.

How do I foam roll? Some great questions being asked.

When it comes to actually doing foam rolling, you’ve got to think of yourself as a mine sweeper trying to search out the sore spots. A lot of people just flop down on a foam roller with no real idea of what they’re doing, leading to just wasted time of mindless rolling.

What you should be doing, keeping in mind the mine sweeping analogy, is find the areas that feel a bit sore or tender. Once this spot has been found, do small, slow rolls until you feel the soreness or tenderness start to ease. The best way to describe this, think of getting a massage and the masseur working out the knots. This should be done until you feel the soreness and tenderness has reduced enough so that you feel comfortable enough to start some movement.

One thing to be aware of as well is the pain scale when it comes to foam rolling. If the pain you feel when you foam roll is more than a 5 or 6 out of 10, that is not good. Any higher than a 5 or 6, this can lead to an increase in muscle tone. Remember from the start of this article, I mentioned the point of foam rolling is to reduce muscle tone.

Take Home Points

Hopefully after finishing this article, you’ve got a better understanding of why, and how, you should be foam rolling. It’s not a long term fix and doesn’t need to take up loads of time at the start of your workout. However, if it feels good and improves your movement or reduces soreness or tenderness before you train, knock yourself out. Just make sure you foam roll the muscle, not your IT band, and make sure you only do short bouts of rolling with a pain score of 5 or 6 out of 10.

Any questions or comments, I’m always happy to help, and you can contact me via my Facebook or Instagram pages.

Thanks for reading,

Coach Steve

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