Foam Rolling: Is the Benefit Really Worth the Pain?
You may have seen some folks at the gym lying and moving around on big foam tubes. If you’re just starting out in your fitness journey, you’ve probably wondered what the hell they’re doing, and why they look like they’re in so much pain on something that looks so comfortable. Well they’re definitely in pain, but it’s not quite torture. Those tubes are foam rollers, and they’re actually doing a type of stretch called Myofascial Release (MFR) Self Myofascial Release (SMR) or of course foam rolling. Is it worth the pain?
What is Myofascia?
First, the facts. Fascia is a system of soft connective tissue that wraps around the body under the skin. It is a sort of net that surrounds muscles, bones, tendons, ligaments, organs, and other tissue, supporting and protecting them. Myofascia refers to areas of the connective tissue directly involved with muscles.
Why Release It?
Normally, fascia is relaxed which lets it easily move and stretch in all directions. However, fascia can tighten up when muscles are overused, underused, as well as after trauma or swelling. This can lead to tightness, constriction, pain, and reduced blood flow to and from different parts of the body.
The good news is that fascia can loosen again with myofascial release. SMR works to alleviate this tightness through stretching and applying pressure. By applying force on the tight spots, it elongates and overloads the fascia causing it to release, thereby relaxing and loosening the net of fascia. If one of your fitness goals is to get more flexible, myofascial release is a great way to get there.
If you want to learn more, RAD Roller does a great education and certification peice on myofascial release.
What Should I Use?
There are a wide range of products that can help you with myofascial release, each with their own benefits. The most common tools for myofascial release are: foam rollers, Lacrosse balls, tennis balls, golf balls, and your very own hands and elbows.
While the big foam rollers can work for some people, I personally love and recommend the RAD Roller products. Their original roller is basically two balls stuck together, which I’ve found is a little bit more stable than just a regular ball. It’s very versatile, and lets you get deeper in and around tissue at any part of the body, and can hit two points at once. Plus it’s super portable. I own about 8 of them that I keep at work, different rooms in my apartment, and in each of my backpacks so I always travel with one. Maybe I’m obsessed, maybe I’m just super prepared. But I’m always known as the guy with those awesome blue balls. Wait, what?
How Do I Roll?
No matter what tool you use, the process is pretty much the same:
- Identify – Find the restricted part of your body
- Target – Place your tool of choice on the tight spot
- Pressure – Add tension by slowly leaning on it to add body weight
- Roll – Slowly shift your body weight around, massaging the small surrounding area
- Repeat – Continue as needed to maintain flexibility and range of motion
Start with a small spot as possible, and move as slowly as you can. You might see people shooting up and down their rollers, but it’s really not as effective. By focusing on a tiny section of the muscle, and really taking your time with it, you’ll work more on relieving the pressure in that spot. Once that area feels better, then move on to the next one. Take your time, slow down, and breathe.
While you’ll feel nice and loose after rolling out your muscles, the process itself can be a little painful, especially at first. The fascia is tight and is painful to move on its own, so adding pressure and force can sometimes cause significant discomfort. Take it slow and start with very little pressure, and increase the force as you get used to it. Play around and experiment with different tools and spots on the body to find what feels good for you.
But it Hurts.
I know. Pain sucks and SMR can be painful. But to me, it’s worth it.
I like to look at rolling as a pain investment. Yes, lying on a hard object and wiggling around can hurt. But you know what hurts more? Tight muscles and tissues that stop you from moving when you need to and cause injury. I’d much rather take the time to roll out my body than be in agony when I’m trying to walk, run, jump, yoga, climb, swim or even just lie down later on.
Controlled Pain Now > Surprise Pain Later
Don’t go overboard, but work through some of the pain. It should get easier the more you do it, and hurt less and less. Don’t push too hard, and have fun with it!