Despite having been around for a long time, foam rolling has only recently become a staple in mainstream fitness. As someone who practices and promotes principles of longevity and pain reduction, I love that there's a growing interest in self-care and proactive injury prevention.
However, I’ve also noticed that with the increased popularity of foam rollers, there is some confusion about how our bodies respond to this stimulus and how to foam roll effectively and safely.
Check out these common foam rolling misconceptions (and trouble-shooting tips) to get more out of your foam-rolling routine!
1. It has to hurt to work.
There is a misguided notion in much of fitness that pain means results. While it makes sense to assume that a strong sensation means something is happening, there is currently no evidence supporting the idea that inducing pain will facilitate relief or results. In fact, it's more likely that the opposite is true, so forget about the outdated notion of "no pain, no gain."
Regardless of what kind of roller you use, foam rolling should NEVER hurt. It’s okay to have a little sensitivity, but gritting your teeth, strong pain signals and braced muscles are signs that you're irritating your sensory nervous system and going too deep, too fast.
So how do we avoid this?
Easy: slow down. This will minimize the shock to your nerves so you can go deeper with less resistance and muscle tension. If it still hurts, you may want to consider a softer tool and working around—not directly on—the painful area.
Think of it like massage. Even if they are performing deep tissue techniques, a good therapist will start with a lighter stroke before going deep and will typically only apply pressure to tolerance, not pain. You want to do the same when working on yourself!
2. Fit people need extra-hard rollers.
Recently, I’ve read several foam rolling articles stating that the fitter you are, the harder your roller needs to be.
While there isn’t anything wrong with using a harder instrument, it’s important to understand that roller hardness relates to the system of the body you're trying to target, not your fitness level.
Softer rollers like the MELT Method roller address the connective tissue system and create a fluid exchange in the cells. Harder rollers like the Trigger Point GRID target the musculoskeletal system and promote increased blood flow in muscles.
Want to get the best of both worlds? Invest in two rollers.
Do your initial passes in sensitive or sore areas to prep your tissue for deeper work. Starting with a gentle stimulus calms your nervous system and release more superficial restrictions so that when you go in with a second, harder tool, you're able to get deeper with less pain.
3. You can “iron out” knots.
We’ve all had a massage or foam rolling experience where we discovered a sensitive lump or “speed bump” living in our shoulder blade, quad or glute.
When we run into these speed bumps, our initial instinct is often to try to iron them out much like we would a wrinkle in a shirt. While this might feel good, it probably won’t cause much long-term change because it doesn’t give your tissue enough time to adapt.
To get better results, create slower strokes over a smaller area. When you find a point of restriction, try skirting the edge of it with the roller instead of landing directly on it. This will be much less painful. From here, you can pause briefly to increase compression to your tolerance level, or you can roll in small motions perpendicular to the muscle, mimicking a common massage technique.