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Is Foam Rolling Bad For You?
By Mike Boyle
I wrote this a while ago but finished it after getting three different versions of “Stop Rolling Your IT band”. As is always the case in life an on the internet, someone has to decide to take the other side of an argument. I often think that those who do so are simply looking for recognition in a crowded field.
We have had two widely distributed “articles” critical of foam rolling. The word articles is in quotes because both so-called articles were actually blog posts.
I find it funny because it seems difficult to me to criticize something that universally makes people feel better. In one article (which was actually written five years ago), the author, Mike Nelson, makes the very basic case that pain is bad and the foam roller causes pain; therefore, the foam roller must be bad too. However, in reading the authors bio, I can’t help but notice that he has been a student for the last 16 years as opposed to a coach, and carries a clear bias toward the neurological origins of pain.
I am not discounting the neurological basis of pain as that would be as illogical. However the author’s primary premise seems to be that pain is bad and should be avoided at all costs. It is also worth noting that the author is a paid practitioner of a technique he feels is better than foam rolling.
It is obvious that I don’t agree and, I intend to make a scientific case for my disagreement rather than a personal one.
I am also of the belief that pain is bad. However, I will qualify that statement and say that most pain is bad. In the case of the foam roller, I will go so far as to say that pain is good. I frequently tell my athletes that the foam roller is the only violation of our Does It Hurt rule. In a nutshell, my normal reaction to any question as to whether someone should do any exercise is to ask “Does It Hurt”? If the answer is no, then the exercise is generally acceptable. In the case of foam rolling, however, I think we actually need top seek out painful spots. Foam rolling is very counterintuitive.
Mr. Nelson’s theory is based on the belief that pain is neurological and that pain causes reflexive actions, all of which are negative. However, in the world of physical therapy, the belief is widely held that often painful techniques of soft tissue mobilization are in fact essential to produce long-term healing. What Mr. Nelson fails to acknowledge in his treatise on foam rolling is that in the end, the process is about chemistry, not electricity. All mechanical and neurological inputs become chemical inputs. It is clear scientific fact that the disturbance caused to tissue via mobilization (rolling, massage, Graston. ART) in effect irritates the tissue. This irritation is painful in the short term, but the response is often a healing one, not a negative one. In soft tissue mobilization, the tissue is deliberately disrupted in order to produce the exact substances that tissue needs to heal and to realign.
Mr. Nelson attempts to draw a line between massage and foam rolling by saying that the skilled hands of a therapist in essence make soft tissue mobilization OK. His premise is that soft tissue work done by a person is infinitely better than pressure provided by an inanimate object. Again, this logic is flawed.
Mr Nelson makes the case that a skilled therapist knows how much pressure to utilize while a person working on themselves will produce so much pain as to render the technique useless. To be honest , I think most people are much easier on themselves than a therapist would be on them. In fact, I don’t think I have ever seen a bruise produced by a foam roller but I have seen numerous bruises produced by a well meaning massage therapist.
The second, more recent, anti-rolling article focused on the IT band. The author, a muscular therapist, focused on the fact that the IT band could not be changed through foam rolling. He implores us to stop rolling the IT band. Again this “anti” article was widely distributed on the internet.
However, if you continue to read into the comment section of the post, the author makes two critical points. In one post, he says that he is ranting and is not sure if he even believes himself. (Yes, I read all the comments). In another, he eludes to the fact that maybe he just wrote this when he was having a bad day. In any case, both blog posts were widely read and widely distributed without the accompanying comments.
So, back to why we foam roll. In the simplest sense, rolling is step one on the preparatory process. Our goal pre-exercise is to prepare the tissue for the stresses about to be applied. Proper tissue preparation allows an athlete to perform a workout without injury. I think or hope that we can accept the position that tissue changes in response to stress.
If the tissue is stressed optimally, the resulting adaptation is positive. If the tissue is overstressed by inappropriate volume (too many reps), speed of lengthening (too fast), or inappropriate overload (to much weight) the tissue response can shift from positive to negative. Although tissue soreness is deemed normal, we must acknowledge that there is an ideal amount of that normal response, and the response should be limited to the muscle tissue and not be present in the connective tissue. In other words, sore quads would be OK, but sore knees not be OK.
In addition, muscle soreness and tissue damage can be the result of blows to the tissue instead of the planned application of stress. This tissue damage must also be mitigated, not just by time. It is important that tissue maintain its ability to deform properly. Loss of this tissue deformation ability results in what is called a stress riser. These stress risers set up us up for later injury.
The big take away point is that thousands of athletes are rolling every day and getting a good result. Two blog posts should not be enough to relieve us of our common sense. Pressure to tissue when well applied seems to produce positive results. Even if we are not confident of the exact physiological response, the results of thousands of athletes speak for themselves. Don’t be fooled by internet writers looking to take a contrarian stance to get site hits. Focus on results. Massage works and so does foam rolling. Just ask anyone who does it.
Quick note. I have often said that the density of the roller corresponds to the density of the athlete. If you lack muscle, try Yamuna balls or white soft rollers (yes, I know they don’t last, but it’s a compromise). Progress to the Perform Better black as your tolerance improves.
–Coach Mike Boyle