Foam rolling is a form of self-massage for your muscles. It helps you recover from strenuous exercise and keeps your tissues mobile and healthy.
There’s connective tissue under your skin called fascia holding together and supporting your muscles, organs, bones, nerves, and blood vessels. This connective tissue can get tight from stress, exercise, or injury. Foam rolling is thought to help break up adhesions in your fascia as a form of myofascial release (MFR). To learn more about foam rolling, including how to do it, benefits, and what to know before you get rolling, we went to the experts. Read on for what they had to say.
Meet the Expert
How to Foam Roll
You can roll before a workout to warm up your muscles and prevent injuries. You’ll increase blood flow to the muscles by foam rolling, which is also helpful after a workout to promote recovery. You can also foam roll whenever the need to relieve tension arises and at the end of a workday spent sitting.
The following advice is from physical therapist Jessica McManus, a Fellow of the American Academy of Orthopedic Manual Physical Therapists, and Miho Tanaka, orthopaedic sports medicine surgeon at Harvard and Director of the Women’s Sports Medicine Program.
- Spend at least one minute on each muscle group
- Roll briskly up and down the muscle, adding in some joint movement
- Foam roll immediately after your workout, within 5-10 minutes, when muscles are still warm
- Take your time, move through the muscle, and find sore spots to spend time on
- Focus particularly on your calves, quadriceps (front of thighs), hip flexors (front of hips), glutes, and hamstrings (back of thighs), as well as your upper back
- Apply pressure in a sweeping motion for up to a minute
- Use your arms and hands to control your body weight placed on the muscle to alter the amount of pressure while rolling.
The Benefits of Foam Rolling
Foam rolling consistently has multiple benefits, especially if you are very active or sedentary.
Improves Range of Motion
Foam rolling can increase your range of motion—which is how much your joints can move in any distance or direction. Sometimes the range of motion becomes limited due to lack of use or stiffness. Foam rolling helps you reach your potential for a full range of motion, especially if combined with stretching.
Reduces Post-Workout Muscle Soreness
For recovery, 10 to 15 minutes of foam rolling after a sport or workout helps reduce muscle soreness.
“Foam rolling after exercise can help reduce muscle pain. This is not only important for an athlete’s comfort but because muscle pain can also reduce performance or training intensity,” says Tanaka.
Since foam rolling helps bring nutrient-rich blood to the muscles, it can help boost healing and recovery post-exercise. A study in The Journal of Athletic Training showed that using a foam roller significantly improved tenderness and performance recovery.
Faster recovery means you can get back to training faster, with less detriment to your performance level.
Prepares Your Body for Activity
“The benefit of foam rolling before a workout is to "warm up" your muscles and prevent potential injuries,” says McManus. Pressure and motion increase blood flow to the muscles you are rolling to prepare them for your workout.
“Some studies have shown that foam rolling during pre-exercise warm-up may be associated with a small improvement in sprint performance, particularly in elite athletes,” says Tanaka.
Foam rolling after exercise has also been shown to improve strength and power performance.
Using a foam roller during warm-up can improve flexibility. “Flexibility is important in athletes, as it can not only improve muscle performance, but it can also help decrease the risk of injury,” says Tanaka. Additionally, studies suggest pre-workout foam rolling can potentially improve short-term flexibility.
Foam rollers are relatively cheap, ranging from $10 to $35 and up, depending on the size and type of material. Although foam rollers can’t completely replace the effects of getting a professional massage, substituting foam rolling for some of your massage sessions could save you money.
Things to Keep in Mind
While foam rolling every day is safe for most people, beware of overdoing it. If you feel abnormally sore and tender the next day, you may have gone too far. Try using less pressure next time or foam rolling for less time.
If you have a current injury or muscle tear, avoid foam rolling unless you are cleared to do so.
If you feel any sharp or persistent pain, stop rolling. Your healthcare provider should address any unresolved pain or stiffness.
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Dębski P, Białas E, Gnat R. The Parameters of Foam Rolling, Self-myofascial Release Treatment: A Review of the Literature. Biomedical Human Kinetics. 2019;11(1):36-46. doi:10.2478/bhk-2019-0005
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