Foam rolling, lacrosse balls, or other types of self-myofascial release has gained quite a bit of popularity over the past 20 years. But it’s important to understand what is really going on when you do perform foam rolling and how it may help relieve sore and tight muscles.
What Foam Rolling Does Not Do
First, foam rolling does not produce any chronic change in tissues. Your range of motion around joints will not increase long-term. It does, however, create an acute change in pain perception for many people. Feelings of “tightness” in the quad, for example, may be relieved by foam rolling the quad. But what is happening is not any change or improvement in the tissue. It is your perception of that tightness. Again, no structural change is occurring. I should point out there is some scientific research that did show positive changes in tissue remodeling in animals. However, the implements provided enormous pressures many times higher than what a person would be able to withstand. To put it mildly, this removes any practical applicability.
Sensory Input Benefit
Now, this is important because it’s not going to help increase your range of motion or flexibility around that joint(s). But that doesn’t mean it’s useless. There does seem to be some type of neurophysiological response that may be beneficial. Essentially, it’s creating a sensory input (the rolling) that overrides another sensory input (feeling tight). Same idea as the football coach who told me he could punch me in the stomach so my shoulder wouldn’t hurt anymore. (he was joking, this was back in the late ’80s, and times have changed).
Tips for Foam Rolling
So, if you are having trouble loosening up, getting into certain positions, etc. while warming up for your activity you can use short bouts of foam rolling to change your perception of the “tightness” to help you get into those positions. For instance, you have to squat first in a workout and your hamstrings feel tight which makes it uncomfortable to get into good positions. You can foam roll your hamstrings during your warmup to create a “looser’ feeling to help you achieve your correct positions. Remember, you are not actually loosening anything up. But if it will change your perception and that helps you, then let it help you.
I wouldn’t recommend spending long amounts of time on these modalities. Simply place around 30 seconds of foam rolling in between 2-3 active warmup exercises or drills. Use it for what it’s good for and be done with it. It shouldn’t make your training session any longer. Just don’t expect it to make any long-term changes in your tissue or flexibility, additional mobility and flexibility training is required for more sustained benefits.