Also referred to as self-myofascial release, foam rolling is essentially a form of self-massage that allows you to apply deep pressure to certain points of the body to release tightness and muscular tension.
The principle is that by applying direct and sweeping high mechanical loads to muscles and tissues, you stretch and massage the underlying tissues. This reduces thickening, adhesion, and tension of the fascia [connective tissue] and muscle and can potentially improve your athletic performance.
Foam rolling can help promote blood flow and break down scar tissue. It could also contribute to maintain normal muscle length, reduce pain and soreness, increase the scale of motion, and aid in recovery. Foam rolling is a great way to help relax your muscles. Even those who are inactive could see benefits, as foam rolling can help lengthen muscles that may have become tight from sitting at a desk all day.
How Often Should You Use a Foam Roller?
Ideally, every day. “The more you foam roll, the more your muscles respond to it,” says Dipple. “Ideally, you should do it daily—as you would stretching—although ease yourself into it by gradually building up the number of sessions you do.”
He recommends dedicating 10 to 20 minutes per session to foam rolling at least once a day to solely get out the knots. “When you find an area of tension, work around it for about 30 seconds using short, slow rolls and follow this up with longer, slower (and more soothing) strokes over the whole length of the muscle.”
As for the hurting thing? Well, it might feel uncomfortable, especially when you first start rolling. “When you’re working an area of tightness, you’re applying your body weight to a tender area so you may well feel some discomfort,” says Furlong. “But if the pain is excruciating, stop immediately.” Furlong also advises seeking advice from a professional before foam rolling if you’re suffering from a serious injury or chronic condition like diabetes.
4 Simple Foam Roller Moves
1. Gluteal muscles
Sit on the foam roller with your knees bent and placed your right ankle on your left knee. With your hands on the floor to keep your balance, roll your body to your right side so that your right gluteal muscles are pressing against the roller. Use your hands and your left foot as leverage as you slowly make small rolls on the right glutes. Switch sides.
2. Iliotibial (IT) Bands
Sit on the foam roller with legs straight out in front of you. With your hands on the floor to keep your balance, roll your body completely to your right side so that your right hip is pressing against the roller. Use your hands as leverage to slowly roll down the side of the leg to the top of the knee and back again, pausing and taking deep breaths at any sore spots. Switch sides.
Sit up with your hamstrings over the foam roller and relax into the roller. Use your feet and hands as support to roll your lower body up and down the length of your tight muscles. The slower you can roll with control the more of a chance for your muscles have to release and relax.
4. Middle back
Lie back on the foam roller with knees bent and the roller positioned across your mid-back. Place your hands behind your head or on the floor to slowly roll along your spine, from the top of the shoulders down to your low back.
Four Foam Roller Mistakes to Avoid
1. Avoid rolling directly onto your lower vertebrae.
Dipple says, “Your lower back muscles will contract to help protect the spine which can cause discomfort or injury.”
2. Do not hold your breath, though it’s intriguing when discomfort hits.
Instead, says Dipple, take long deep breaths as you roll to increase blood flow to the working muscles and derive more of the benefits of foam rolling.
3. Stop rolling evenly on each side.
“If it’s your right leg that has an issue, spend more time on that side,” says Dipple. “Don’t forget your other leg, but don’t worry about doing the same on both sides.” Focus on the muscles and joints that need more TLC, even if they are mostly on one side of your body.
4. Avoid rolling too quickly!
Longer, slower, more regular rolls, while taking deep breaths, will cause your brain to send a message to your muscles to relax.
A foam roller is a self-massage tool that can be utilized pre-run to increase mobility and after the run to speed up recovery. By decreasing muscle tension in chronically tight spots, a foam roller and same tools can produce some of the advantages of deep-tissue massage.
Why Foam Rollers Work
Using a foam roller is a way to perform myofascial release around muscles. “Myofascial” refers to the fascia, the connective tissue that encompasses your muscles and other body parts and allows for movement. This inner webbing can stiffen with repeated motions such as distance running.
Foam rollers can also pinpoint trigger points, which are places in muscles where twists have developed over time. It’s possible to have an outstanding range of motion but still have trigger points that create pain and tightness. Trigger points start as micro-tears that become chronic through a tear-and-repair repetitive cycle, leading to improved tension in the tender muscle.
Stretching a muscle with a knot or trigger point generally, addresses only the healthy muscle tissue. Trigger points respond much better to direct force; a foam roller is one way to safely apply that pressure.
Among the most popular spots for runners to foam roll are the quadriceps, calves, hamstrings, and iliotibial band.
Analysis on foam rollers has found they can increase the span of motion and speed recovery by decreasing pain and soreness. Although there isn’t straightforward large-scale evidence of foam rollers’ effectiveness in preventing injury, it stands to reason that reducing the muscle tension created by trigger points should decrease injury risk and allow for more regular training.