A tubular error of some sort ate about 1,200 words worth of Compass yesterday, rendering a post I'd written about foam rolling fairly useless. Just like foam rollers!
Rather than reconstructing the whole thing, I thought I'd give readers the summary of my argument, along with links to studies and commentary by those who know the subject better.
I use foam-rollers. Everyone at my gym does, because the trainers swear by it, and because there is something seemingly magical about a how a basic foam log can "release fascia" and "elongate muscles" and "prime the body" for working out. Except that, with a few exceptions, those claims are magical. They aren't true. Foam rolling just doesn't work as advertised. In fact, depending on your physical condition, it might be one of the worst things you can do before you work out.
Why? For one thing, fascia — the connective web of tissue that surrounds and protects viscera — is not something that can be easily deformed. In fact, if it was deformable in the way that foam rolling advocates suggest, a simple massage would probably tear it apart. Fascia can be manipulated, of course, but the degree of manipulation and its effects on pain and muscle tone and health are very transient. Mechanorecepters in the fascia feel the pressure, and, through simple reflex action, the muscles in the area will relax; there is a transient analgesic effect to, kind of like what happens when you squeeze your hand between your thumb and forefinger for temporary relief from a headache. Basically, with constant pressure in that one area, you distract yourself from the pain.
Lots of folks use foam follers to try and lengthen famously tight muscle groups like the illiotibial band. But the IT band is not supposed to be lengthened. A lot of runners — marathon runners — have tighter IT bands than couch potatoes. Strength coaches might respond that foam rolling is sort of a preparatory stress for your muscle. But really, there is no evidence at all that foam rolling does anything other than to temporarily trigger a slight change in muscle tone that repairs itself before you start working out.
Foam rolling isn't necessary bad. If you roll your upper back before a work-out and you enjoy the feeling you get after you do, and that helps to motivate you, then there's no reason why you shouldn't continue to trick yourself into thinking it works. But just be aware that there's little a lot more placebo and a lot less biomechanical manipulation involved.
Muscle pain, tightness, and injuries are complicated musculoskeletal kinetic phenomenon that don't lend themselves easily to simple metaphors.