“Mobility” is a buzz term getting thrown around the fitness industry at the moment. “Foam-roll this, trigger-ball that.”

What is actually going on when you self-release? The first thing to understand is why you are self-releasing. If you’ve been convinced that you’re making your muscles longer or loosening your ITB then you are fibbing to yourself. One study looked at the amount of force required to alter human tissue and found that you needed far more force than you can elicit on a foam roller to have any sort of tissue change [2]. You might be thinking, “well if there isn’t any evidence for foam rolling, why does my trainer make me do it?” Well, before you throw the foam roller and the spikey ball in the cupboard, there is some evidence to suggest it can be useful if implemented correctly. One systematic review [1] looked at self-releasing using foam rollers (and massage sticks) found that it was useful for transiently improving joint range and reducing post-exercise soreness, however, was unable to explain the mechanism for change. One theory is that the pressure of the tool is sufficient enough to influence the nervous system’s control over that muscle [3], but nothing concrete has been proven.

Despite the underwhelming scientific evidence for self-release, it is hard to undermine the significant accounts of anecdotal evidence indicating that self-release, in general, makes you feel good. Regardless of the fact that spending five minutes of foam rolling before your morning walk is not going to change the length of your ITB, if it stops your knee pain, then that’s a win. If you suffer from headaches from desk work, and rolling a spikey ball through your neck and shoulders takes the bite out of your headache, that’s a win.

There is some evidence suggesting that massage therapy can be useful at improving the psychological approach to training and performance when alleviating muscle soreness[4]. Whilst this isn’t directly related to self-release, if you find that self-releasing before training means you feel you can train better, then that’s a pretty powerful tool to have up your sleeve. Not to mention it is time efficient, and cheaper than a massage.

Moral of the story is, understand the benefits of self-releasing, and why you are doing it, and know when to implement it. Once you’ve explored a few modalities and found what works for you, you’ll probably forget about the lack of evidence and focus on making yourself feel and move better.

References:

  1. Cheatham SW, Kolber MJ, Cain M, Lee M. The effects of self‐myofascial release using a foam roll or roller massager on joint range of motion, muscle recovery, and performance: a systematic review. International journal of sports physical therapy. 2015 Nov;10(6):827.
  2. Chaudhry H, Schleip R, Ji Z, Bukiet B, Maney M, Findley T. Three-dimensional mathematical model for deformation of human fasciae in manual therapy. The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association. 2008 Aug 1;108(8):379-90.
  3. Abels KM. The impact of foam rolling on explosive strength and excitability of the motor neuron pool.
  4. Hemmings BJ. Physiological, psychological and performance effects of massage therapy in sport: a review of the literature. Physical Therapy in Sport. 2001 Nov 1;2(4):165-70.