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Can Foam Rolling Be Harmful?

All forms of physical exercise has some form of risk and harm that can stem from lack of knowledge and proper technique. Here are things to avoid when foam rolling.

A female athlete stretching her leg with a foam roller.

There are plenty of reasons your muscles may be sore. Maybe you just got done with an intense workout or run, or maybe you were in an accident. You could even be dealing with chronic muscle pain and soreness from a medical condition.

Whatever the case, your muscles need some TLC from time to time to keep them loose and help relieve any pain or soreness you may be experiencing. One of the best ways to do this is with a self-massaging tool such as a foam roller.

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A lot of athletes and people who live in the gym swear to foam rolling, as it helps them hit trigger points in their bodies after a long workout from various angles and positions. The science behind foam rolling is actually quite intriguing.

Essentially, the tool helps you target the connective tissue that surrounds the bones, joints, and muscles. These areas can sometimes become tight and ache, as a result. This is why foam rolling is so popular — there are even entire workout classes that are dedicated solely to foam rolling.

With all of this being said, one of the worst things you can do is underestimate foam rolling, which, unfortunately, is easy to do given how simple it may look to the untrained eye. However, if you don’t know what you’re doing, you can actually harm yourself and worsen your aches and pains in the process.

Luckily, we’ve put together this guide to help you learn what NOT to do when foam rolling:

How Can Foam Rolling be Potentially Harmful?

1. Applying The Wrong Amount of Pressure

Foam rolling should only be used when applying the correct amount of pressure, not too much or too little, or it may not be able to repair the damaged muscle tissue correctly.

Beginning at a medium speed may be the most effective at relieving tension, without causing too much strain on the muscle. That being said, it may take a while for the muscle that you are focusing on to relax. This will also change depending on the area of the body you are focusing on, because some muscles have trigger points, or may get tighter than others.

Different muscles will have varying degrees of tension, so it’s important to listen to what your body needs, and apply pressure accordingly. It can be difficult to tell the correct amount of pressure, however, it shouldn’t feel comfortable to do, especially with certain trigger points.

However, if you’re feeling no discomfort, you may not be applying enough pressure. Excruciating pain is not good either and communicates that you must lessen the pressure. Also important is not going too fast over certain sections, because this could lead to a lack of enough pressure.

A close look at an athlete using a foam roller to stretch his leg.

2. Focusing on Certain Areas of Your Body For Too Long

It goes without saying, but some areas of the body might have more pressure than others. With that being said, you don’t want to overdo it on any one spot by staying focused on it for too long. The recommended time to roll any one area would be 30 seconds to one minute.

30 seconds should be spent holding the muscle over the roller all while applying consistent pressure. 30 seconds can then be spent exploring dynamic pressure on the area. Dynamic pressure means that the foam roller is moved, as opposed to applying static pressure by just holding it in place.

It’s a good idea, to begin with, static pressure and then move to dynamic pressure. A great way to conduct this is by keeping the roller in a single place as you twist from side to side, moving your body across the roller and up and down the length of the muscle that you’re focusing on.

3. Trying to Foam Roll a Muscle That Hasn’t Been Warmed Up

Timing with foam rolling is important because if you spend too much time in a single area, there is an increased risk of bruising or injury. The risk is especially high when this is done on what’s called a cold muscle. This is essentially a muscle that hasn’t been properly warmed up before doing physical activity.

Foam rolling a muscle that has not been warmed up is preferable to static or dynamic stretching, however. Foam rolling is actually the first recommended step in warming-up to exercise.

The risk associated with foam rolling too hard is similar to the risks associated with massage-bruising. If you experience this after rolling, ice can be used to comfort the area, however, any sort of swelling, loss of function, range of motion, or strength indicates that you should see a doctor immediately.

When you begin rolling a cold muscle, you should always start with softer pressure in order to avoid further damage or inflammation. When you move the roller too aggressively over a cold muscle, you run the risk of damaging muscle tissue which could make muscle aches even worse. Instead, keep the roller still, and maneuver your body gently in order to give your body the time to generate heat and further warm-up, which leads to the loosening of tense points.

A buff athlete stretching his thigh muscle with a foam roller.

6. Foam Rolling in The Wrong Areas

While most muscles aren’t an issue, there are some specific areas you should steer clear from. One of the biggest mistakes is to roll your IT band, which in actuality cannot be loosened. If you have a tight IT band individuals should focus on rolling quadriceps, glutes, and around the knee instead.

After this, you can focus on strengthening and physical therapy designed to strengthen your glutes and further take pressure off the IT band. This will decrease the likelihood of IT band syndrome occurring.

Conclusion

As you can see, without the right knowledge and techniques, foam rolling can do more harm than good. This is why it’s important to keep this guide handy if you’ve never done it before, as it will keep you informed on things to avoid.

For more guidance about foam rolling and other self-massage therapies, stay tuned to our blog!

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