You're rolling for the wrong reasons
The foam roller is a popular accessory in gyms, health professional’s practices and the homes of active individuals. In some of these locations, the foam roller truly is only an accessory – never being used, always sitting quietly in the corner. Elsewhere, individuals are jumping on it daily to “roll out those tight ITBs”, “work out that built up lactic acid” or “massage those adhesions out”.
Funnily enough, no matter how you use it, the foam roller is not actually doing any of those things. But that doesn’t mean you should stop using it. In fact, you should all definitely be getting stuck into it, every day!
Lactic acid does not build up in the muscles to form knots or trigger points in the hours and days after a hard training session. Lactic acid actually gets cleared from the muscles – via the blood – within an hour of that hard session. Those knots and triggers you feel hours and days later are more likely toxins that build up from the inflammatory response occurring in response to micro-tearing of the muscle fibres, and scar tissues forming as a result. Regardless, getting into these niggly points with a foam roller can help to alleviate pain and accelerate recovery.
Massaging out adhesions in the muscles and connective tissues is quite likely impossible. Studies have shown that it may require as much as 2000lbs of force to break down connective tissue adhesions (“stuck” points within the fibrous tissues that connect muscles to bone, cartilage, tendons and other muscles). That connective tissue is extremely strong stuff, and no force we put into it with a foam roller is going to alter it structurally.
So what is the foam roller doing?
Foam rolling is stimulating your brain to “hit the reset button”. When you roll over the muscles, an input is sent to the brain – via the nervous system – to temporarily reset and relax that area of contractile tissue. That’s why you feel better afterwards! The brain has relaxed the muscle and you perceive it as feeling less tight. The result is temporary, so we encourage foam rolling, and the like, on a daily basis!
As well as a foam roller, you can use tennis balls, hockey balls, acupressure balls or anything else you can dream up. Different apparatus will be better suited to certain body parts, of course. Even self-massage is effective – don’t be afraid to get into your own muscles, you really can’t go too far wrong.
If you want some more ideas around effective methods for improving recovery, mobility and overall function, check out The 10-Minute Mobility Guide.