Why I've Soured on Foam Rolling

I usually don’t sing John Cougar Mellencamp.  Strike that.  I never sing John Cougar Mellencamp.

Both Jack and Diane could use some breathing work.. (OK, that was bad)

Both Jack and Diane could use some breathing work.. (OK, that was bad)

Except for when I’m foam rolling. 

That’s when the words and melody to “Hurts So Good” start blaring in my head (and occasionally out of my mouth). If you’ve ever done any soft tissue work, you know what I’m talking about.

Foam rolling and soft tissue work can be very beneficial.  For optimizing movement and alleviating some pain-related symptoms, foam rolling can seem like a godsend.  But it hurts. And if you've ever noticed, we always tend to be sore in the same exact places.  It may be eliminated for a few hours after we roll but it always comes back.

So if we're constantly sore in the same exact places (calves, quads/IT bands, glutes, upper back) are we really fixing anything when we foam roll?  What if we could make your IT band not sore in the first place, and have you move better without even touching a foam roller?

There's also something contradictory about telling someone that taking a foam roller or lacrosse ball to the sorest part of their body - and doing something incredibly painful -  is actually good for them. Secret masochism aside, it's something I've always tried to wrap my brain around.  I sat there one day grimacing my way through yet another painful rolling session and I thought to myself “there has to be a better way.”  And there is.

Dat. Bootay.

Dat. Bootay.

It's important to distinguish what foam rolling actually is - a marker of sympathetic tone, or how stressed you are.  I don't mean stressed as in the traditional context of the word - worrying all night long or spending your weekends at the office - but as in our bodies' stress response.  When we're stressed, be physical or mental, we struggle to fully exhale and walk around in a state of hyperinflation.  Being too inflated throws us into extension or what I like to call "dat bootay," known as anterior pelvic tilt. Our quads get turned up and tight, our backs get jacked up, and our calves can't shut off.  In a way, these muscles are doing our breathing for us which explains why it's so darn painful when we roll these areas.  If you’re lucky, you may also have a pretty sore butt or tight pecs when you use a lacrosse ball on them, which are a signal of additional breathing compensations.

Let that sink in for a second.  I just said your quads, calves, butts, and pecs are doing your breathing for you.  Am I crazy?  But go with me for a second and let's think: why are those muscles repeatedly tight and sore but the muscles responsible for breathing - our abs and hamstrings - aren't?  There's a deeper problem that needs to be solved and you don't get much deeper than breathing.

What's the solution?  First, it's learning how to properly exhale and holding for a few seconds. When we fully exhale we're doing two main things: 1) shutting down our body's stress response and 2) creating "good stiffness" in our abs while reducing "bad stiffness" in our quads, calves, glutes, etc.  Relearning how to fully exhale and hold is going to eliminate our need to foam roll as it's taking care of our underlying issues.  For example, your IT band isn't tight because you run, it's tight because you can't breathe correctly while you run.  (It's actually not your IT band, it's your vastus lateralis, but that's another story..)

If you're picking up what I'm putting down, I'd highly suggest one of these videos.  For what it's worth, I no longer foam roll because I don't need to.  If I spend 5 solid minutes working on breathing, nothing is tight or sore when I head to the foam roller.  Every now and then, I’ll foam roll my calves and the usual tight spots just to see how “toned up” my body is.  More often than not, nothing is sore.  But if something feels awry I'll go back and breathe some more.

If someone only has 5 minutes and foam rolling is the only thing they know, then by all means continue to foam roll.  But if you have some extra time, try breathing first and then foam rolling.  You may just feel a difference.