To Roll, or not to Roll, That is the Question:

Whether 'tis more sensible to suffer the tension and tightness of repetition fortune, or to take action and release tension and improve mobility troubles. 

Stretching and stretching methods have always been open to debate, but self-massage (or SMFR, Self-Myofascial Release) in the form of foam rollers and other objects (balls, sticks) have entered the fray in more recent years. The idea being to use your own weight against said object on body areas of soft tissue (muscular) discomfort. A varying degree of pressure can then be applied as appropriate to help relieve muscular tension.

Foam rolling to relieve muscular tension.

Do I use a foam roller? No, but then I've never consciously added stretching to my regimen either. My bodybuilding-style of training is consistent, varied, and follows full-range-of-movement; therefore, I generally avoid the tightness associated with repetitive movement patterns, and am stretching warm muscles during my workouts also, and so enjoy good flexibility and little DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness).

Applying pressure to an area of tightness is nothing new, we have probably all naturally done this with our own fingers and thumbs, at some point, in order to relieve tension in an area of discomfort. Using objects to assist is just a furthering of this.

Foam rolling post-exercise, or at other times of inactivity, I can very much see the potential "feel-good" benefit for those enduring repetitive movement patterns in their sport and/or suffering general muscular aches and tightness, there's also research to suggest that massage can aid with decreasing inflammation and improving cell repair. However, I am concerned with the APPLICATION and the EXCESS to which they are used with the belief of increasing general mobility and performance, particularly the use of rollers before or during exercise.

APPLICATION: There's some debate out there regarding the application of the foam roller to massage certain areas, the Iliotibial Band (IT Band) being one. I personally suspect that the only benefit here is the chemical reaction "feel-good" morphine-like pain killing effect, so not helping in addressing the root cause of discomfort or aiding in recovery. I consider the massage of tears and ruptures of muscles and tendons a greater concern, which may prolong recovery...the same could be said for massaging inflamed bursa sacks. NB: In these circumstances, I have to question the individual's ability compared to an experienced Sports Massage therapist with a good understanding of anatomy, massage techniques, and considered contraindications (reasons why not to massage). This is not to say that they cannot; applying pressure in a soft tissue area of discomfort to relieve tension is something that you can feel, just familiarise yourself with what you're doing for better-affect and consider what effect it may have actually had beyond solely improved comfort/ pain reduction.

EXCESS: Returning to the use of foam rollers before and during exercise, I would argue that it may only improve a temporary physical state; During extra-time of a tough soccer match, a physio applying pressure (and stretching) say a tight calf or hamstrings muscles makes sense to me, and can buy precious minutes of play. The increased mobility and ability to perform is temporary and comparative, and certainly not improved over how they started the match. Within reason, I have no objection to gently massaging a tight muscle before or during general training to improve comfort; it may even be advantageous for some that suffer more general muscular aches and niggles, particularly the more mature trainer having a less intense workout. However, in the circumstance of the young athlete in good health, foam rolling for 15 minutes at a time before training to simply "free up" tight muscles may be making them far less prepared for the intense workout planned. Relaxing muscles and promoting a pain-relief effect is not a welcome circumstance, not in my mind's eye. In the gym, I'd consider extension of warm up sets a far better way of preparing you and your muscles for the job in hand. If muscles (and maybe tendons) are truly that tight for the exercise, maybe another exercise is preferable to limit the risk of injury and allow a greater recovery period. In this circumstance, foam rolling after the event may have a greater overall benefit. I guess the point I'm trying to make is that, while foam rolling is very appropriate for some in certain circumstances, it appears to be used inappropriately and used to excess by others. Just because it's fashionable, it doesn't mean that everyone should be doing it all of the time.

In conclusion, the rolling out (like the pun!) of foam rollers in recent years is a good thing to help alleviate muscular discomfort conveniently and on a's a poor man's alternative to a sports massage. However, with popularity comes money and mis-selling...usually, the mis-selling is not even deliberate, it's the Emperor's new clothes knock-on kind of effect. Over-reporting of improved mobility and increased performance is a bit of a stretch for me, I believe this to be misconceived and something that is only a temporary state. I believe this has helped stem the misuse and overuse of foam rolling by many sports men and women.

As always, what works for someone isn't necessarily what works for someone else. I do not expect all to agree with this article...I'd rather you didn't; I'd rather you question things (my teachings and others) and make sense of it in your own mind...experiment, question, improve your general knowledge and your understanding of your own body :)

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Thanks, and happy injury-free training!