Oct 2015 17

Why I hate foam rollers

By: Dave Wheeler

When I run workshops for sports people around the Hitchin & Letchworth area I inevitably get a question about the use of foam rollers.

Let me say from the start that i don't discriminate against people who use foam rollers. They have every right to their lifestyle choices. But I just have one question: "Why, oh why?"



What's wrong with foam rollers, then?

So actually, I'm serious, if you use a foam roller, can you describe why?

At a recent workshop that I ran in Hitchin town centre, one person answered my question with "I've always done it". That's a pretty common answer.


Foam rollers & the ITB

Runner's will often talk about their ITB - the Iliotibial band - a strong fibrous band of material that runs from the outside of the hip to the outside of the knee, and it's very common for runner to roller their ITB a lot. If you're one of them, ask yourself why?

The function of the ITB is to stop your leg flailing in front of you every time you take a step - something that's pretty important, especially if you run when you'd otherwise be tripping over your own legs.

I've got a one-man crusade going to redefine "ITB". It should stand for Intentionally Tight Band.

The ONLY time that you should consider foam rollering your ITB is if you get a pain (that's a pain not an ache) on the very outside of your knee. Even then, you need to stop well short of the knee and hip joints themselves to avoid damage to the fibres there.


Foam rollers & quads

Foam rollering your quads is an easy one: don't.

Unless your built like a tank and have a good half inch depth to the muscles of your quads, all you'd be doing is squashing muscle against bone, which will bruise the muscle.

Far from helping your quad muscles, foam rollering is more likely to damage them.


Foam rollers & the "backline"

The volume of the muscle betwen the calf muscles and bone, and the hamstrings and bone (what's known as the backline) is quite deep, so you can roller those muscles without squashing them against bone.

If you do use a foam roller along the backline, stop well short of the joints - don't go to the back of knee or to the hip. On your calves, if you go down your Achilles, back off massively on the weight your putting down on the roller.

Even then, there are 2 questions I'd ask you:

  1. Why are you rollering THOSE muscles?
  2. What do you think you're achieving by rollering them?


Here's what using a foam roller properly CAN do for you

Despite my obvious distaste for foam rollers, I sometimes prescribe their use (the one in the photo above is actually mine) - just this week I gave a triathlete an exercise to do using the foam roller to ward off a nascent Achilles problem.

Firstly, if you're a pro- or semi-pro athlete you're going to have a lot of time to keep your body in peak shape, so go ahead, as long as your careful about not damaging muscle fibres or joints, roller away!

For most of us, we've got limited time for our sport and exercise, and even more limited time for stretching and all that goes with it.

So here's the Dave Wheeler guidance on when to use foam rollers:

  • Concentrate on muscle groups along the back line that you know would ache if you didn't stretch.
  • Don't roller. Stretch properly. 
  • If you have been stretching the backline muscles properly for 3 months, but don't seem to be getting any better, you might think about trying a foam roller.
  • If you do us a foam roller, see the advice above on avoiding joints.


What does foam rollering actually achieve?

Give this some proper thought, maybe even some research online. Foam rollering doesn't do much at all to muscle. It can't - it doesn't go deep (like my elbow would on your calves or hammies).

But what foam rollering does do is iron out the fascia.- the connective tissue that surrounds muscle and tendon and is often the cause of tightness in both.

From that point of view, it's well worth it, especially since restrictions in range of movement are often from fascial tightness rather than muscle tightness.

It's not that I'm against using foam rollers per se, I'm just against using them when it's not necessary, when it's dangerous, or when the person doesn't understand what they're trying to achieve.


A final word on dense foam

If you do decide to go for a foam roller, you've probably noticed that there are a few different types available from smooth, to bumpy to downright knobbly.

Remember that foam rollers will help with fascial release (and that's all). The fascia is a thin membranous layer which itself can get damaged. So go for smooth.

As ever, if you think I can help, give me a call.