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Excercise can be tough on your body. If you’re a runner, for example, you’re subjecting your body’s soft tissues to a crazy amount of force (over and over…and over), with every step. This can can cause microtears in your muscles that lead to lingering aches and pains if you don’t recover properly.
It’s no wonder so many coaches, trainers, physiologists, and physical therapists say foam rolling should be an integral part of your fitness regimen. Foam rolling can help you loosen up pre-workout, decrease pain and recover faster after a run, and generally keep your muscles more mobile so you can get the most out of every mile.
Weirdly enough, the science hasn’t quite caught up to the popularity of the practice. Most studies on foam rolling have been small, and haven’t determined exactly how effective foam rolling can be. But a 2020 review of the scientific literature determined that foam rolling may reduce muscle stiffness and increase range of motion before training, and can reduce delayed onset muscle soreness and potentially optimize recovery from training. Win-win, right?
As researchers try to catch up with runners, foam rolling remains one of the easiest prescriptions for most maladies (not injuries, but the kind of tightness and tension you feel a day or so post-run). Here’s why you should spend just a fraction of the time you log on the road or treadmill draped over a foam roller, and how to use a foam roller properly.
How Foam Rolling Works
Foam rolling is a form of self-myofascial release. To understand that, you have to understand what your “fascia” is. “The fascia is a sheath of connective tissue that covers all your muscles,” says Sarah Bair, an athletic trainer for the Brooks Beasts Track Club. It also covers all your organs, bones, joints, and tendons, keeping everything where it should be.
Your fascia is kind of like webbing, and when it’s healthy, it’s flexible and moves smoothly over your muscles. But injury, overuse, and inactivity can cause it to get stiff or or form adhesions that get in the way of it doing its job. Your fascia can also contract and expand separately from the muscles it surrounds, and if a specific muscle is tight or sore, chances are it will cause tightness in the surrounding fascia as well—both of which can have ramifications throughout your body. It’s all connected!
By keeping that fascia nice and elastic, “you allow your muscles to reach its full range of motion without restriction,” says Leada Malek, C.S.C.S., a board-certified sports physical therapist. But if that restriction (i.e. tightness or tension) is bad enough, it can actually mess with your body mechanics, adds Malek. Think about it this way: If your quads or hamstrings are tight, it can decrease the range of motion around your knee—which prevents you from opening up into a full stride and nailing your most efficient running form.
Plus, if you’re not able to achieve your full range of motion within any part of your musculature (whether that tightness is in your fascia or a particular muscle), “your body is going to compensate in some way to achieve that range of motion,” says Bair. Say you don’t have a full range of motion in your psoas (the muscle that extends through your pelvis to your femur and is responsible for flexing the hip joint and lifting the upper leg towards the body), you might bend your back to compensate with every forward step—and end up with lower back pain, she explains.
One more thing: Because your fascia has nerves that make it almost as sensitive as your skin, foam rolling is also a way to trigger your central nervous and prompt your body to chill out, says Bair. “By applying that pressure and working through it, you’re telling your brain to relax itself, which relieves that pain and stiffness.”
OK, let’s go back to that term “self-myofascial release.” Release is pretty self-explanatory, and “self” just means you don’t need an expert to apply this technique. There are all kinds of massage therapists who practice hands-on myofascial release, but the beauty of a foam roller is that you can DIY that same technique at home—and, if you do it right, get the same benefits. It’s like having a personal masseuse on hand, minus the pricey bill.
How to Choose a Foam Roller
There are a range of foam rollers of all shapes and sizes available; most are made of a type of foam called EVA and come in varying densities—hard, medium, and soft—depending on how much pressure you want when you roll.
If you’re new to foam rolling, Malek recommends starting with a longer, lower to medium density roller. “That will help you develop a tolerance to foam rolling while getting used to the mechanics of doing it safely and properly,” she says. Once you’re more comfortable and aware of your body’s response to foam rolling, you can progress to a higher density foam or more textured rollers with bumps or ridges, adds Bair.
Those thick, round foam rollers are best for large muscle groups, such as the quadriceps, iliotibial band, calves, and hamstrings, says Melanie Strassburg, physical therapist and assistant clinical director at New York–based Professional Physical Therapy. And a good, basic roller should be versatile enough to hit the most important areas for runners (including the shoulders and upper back, says Malek—important areas to roll pre-workout if you spend the majority of the day sitting).
If for some reason the standard, cylindrical roller isn’t accessing the areas in your body that you need it to, you might want to explore other shapes like a ball (which can get into the small muscles of your feet or deeper into your glutes), a peanut (which is like a foam roller and ball in one and protects your spine while rolling out your back), a massage stick (which allows you to apply pressure in a different way), or even a vibrating version of any of the above.
What You’ve Been Doing Wrong
Ever laid on a foam roller and thought “ahhhh”—not in a good way? There’s this idea that foam rolling “hurts so good,” but it’s not a “no pain, no gain” sort of practice. “It’s normal to feel a little uncomfortable, but it shouldn’t feel painful,” says Malek. “If it hurts to the point where you’re resisting any pressure on the roller—whether that’s by unweighing yourself or tensing the muscle itself—that’s a red flag.” Remember, the point of foam rolling is to release tension, not cause it.
Speaking of pain, avoid rolling over injuries. “With [something like] a muscle strain, going directly over the area will increase inflammation, increasing tension in the area of injury,” Strassburg says. Avoid bony protuberances, ligaments, and tendons as well; it won’t feel good, and there are no benefits to hitting those areas.
And don’t rush through foam rolling. Yes, it sometimes feels like something you just need to check off your To Do list to be a healthy runner. But “if you really want it to do its job, take your time with it,” says Malek. “You should be moving about one inch per second. Think of it like yoga pace versus HIIT pace.” Part of how foam rolling works is by using your bodyweight to apply pressure to the soft tissues while you roll; if you’re speeding through a quick routine, you’re not giving your fascia and muscles time to absorb that pressure as they sink into the foam roller.
How to Use a Foam Roller Properly
It seems pretty straightforward, right? Place foam roller on floor, lay body on top of it. Not quite. To start, “pick a muscle group and find a position where both legs feel comfortable on the roller; that will help disperse some of the pressure,” says Bair. Then, find the meaty part of the muscle. For example, to roll out your quadriceps, you’d lie on your stomach and place the roller under your thighs. For your hamstrings, you’d place the roller under the back of your thighs while in a seated position.
Once you’ve found your starting point, “do about five to ten broad muscle rolls—hitting the bottom, middle, and top—to scan the area for any tight spots,” says Bair. Found one? Transition to one leg (if that feels OK to you) and move through a few different ranges of motion to help actively release the muscle. “If you’re rolling your calves, think about pointing and flexing your foot,” says Bair. “If you’re rolling your quads, bend and extend your knee.” Go through those motions five to 10 times while you’re paused over that tight area.
Is there a certain amount of time you should spend on each muscle? That 2020 review found the best amount of time to achieve the flexibility the optimum dosage to achieve the flexibility benefits of foam rolling to be a total 90 to 120 seconds. A study published in the International Journal of Research in Exercise Physiology, on the other hand, found that a total of 60 seconds of rolling had an effect. Most trainers recommend at least 30 seconds per side.
And in terms of whether rolling pre- or post-workout is better, “evidence seems to justify the widespread use of foam rolling as a warm-up activity rather than a recovery tool,” according to a review of foam rolling research published in 2019 in Frontiers in Physiology. However, the more recent review noted foam rolling’s positive effect on DOMS and deemed it a potential recovery method. So do both!
If that’s asking too much, Malek prioritizes pre-workout rolling. “If you have to choose stretching or foam rolling, 100 percent foam roll plus a dynamic warm-up,” she says. “That’s going to make everything feel more mobile, which will make your stride a little better.”
Can’t do it immediately before or after a workout? Your muscles and fascia will still benefit if you do it earlier or later in the day—just don’t skip it!