There is a lot of information circulating the internet these days about foam rolling. From holy praise in one article to heavy criticism in the next, it can be a little difficult to figure out what to believe. Here’s our two-cents worth on foam rolling — when and where it can be appropriate and where to avoid using it.
Let’s talk about the IT Band first. Many of us have at least heard of this structure in the outside of our thighs, but what do we really know about it? For starters it’s not a muscle but a thick band of fascia that connects to the pelvis and the knee, linking a whole bunch of surrounding musculature. And it’s notoriously tight. But rather than being a bad thing, the IT band is actually MEANT to be tight. What!? Yes, indeed there is such a thing as good tension. Because it is not a muscle, it has almost zero contractility and cannot readily change length to accommodate the actions of the body. The primary action of the Iliotibial Band is to stabilize the knee, and to do this effectively, it needs to be taut.
So the first thing we need to do is to dispel the idea that we need to loosen it – we don’t, and chronic foam rolling of the IT Band can cause issues. I’ve actually heard someone say “roll right up onto your IT Band, and if it hurts then it’s too tight”. In fact, if we accept this kind of logic we’ll all be rolling out our IT Bands until the end of time, because it’s always going to hurt.
This is not to say that all foam rolling is bad. In fact, it can be quite useful on many fronts: self-healing in between massage treatments, flexibility training, athletic preparation and warm-down protocols after intense workouts. These benefits are found when we roll muscle tissue.
Going back to the above example of the IT Band — if you’re experiencing knee discomfort and you’ve been told it may be related to the IT Band, this article provides a great demonstration of how to roll out the surrounding muscle tissue instead of the Band itself for relief. When rolling the muscle tissue the pressure that a foam roller supplies does two main things: helps to disperse adhesions and scar tissue, and flushes used blood out of the muscle, drawing new blood to the area and with it, more oxygen and nutrients for muscle repair and healing.
The thing we need to be sure of is that our pain tolerance matches the intensity of our foam rolling. If we’re experiencing too much pain, any benefits of tension relief will be short-lived, if gained at all. At greater intensities (than we can handle) all of our surrounding tissue tenses up in response to pain. More Pain is NOT more gain. Instead of going past this edge, try working up to greater intensities by approaching your pain edge, breathing during the experience, and ensuring that you are comfortable enough to allow all of the surrounding areas of muscle to relax. For better results overall, finish a foam rolling session with stretching.
Take home messages: Don’t roll your IT Band, always try to focus on muscle tissue, and only go up to the edge of your pain threshold, not past it. I hope this helps feed a more balanced conversation on foam rolling!