Cover photo showing a man using a foam roller on a football field

Why You Should Be Foam Rolling – Benefits, Tips, & What To Avoid

by Cole Matthews - Last Updated September 13, 2016

Your workout yesterday was one of your best. You were hitting the weights hard, got some high intensity cardio training in and even ended the workout with a successful stretching session…but today you’re still sore. You think to yourself, “I stretched to avoid feeling sore. Why on earth are my muscles still aching? Isn’t stretching supposed to help my muscles repair and feel good after my workout?”

What you are most likely experiencing in the next few days after your workout is Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness, also known as ‘DOMS.’ Although DOMS typically impacts major athletes at the start of training season, those who exercise regularly experience it often as well. DOMS can occur in a lot of different scenarios, such as when you try a new exercise, work an area that you haven’t exercised in a while, when you go a little heavier in weight room, or push a little harder on the cardio.

Now that we’re all on the same page, I’m sure you’re probably wondering, “How can I avoid DOMS? Or what can I do to get rid of the muscle soreness quicker?” Unfortunately, as we all know, soreness doesn’t go away overnight. The good news is that Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness can be majorly relieved with a form of manual therapy and stretching called self-myofascial release (aka self-massage). Myofascial release can be achieved in different ways, such as going to get a massage, the Graston Technique, structural integration, trigger point release – or the more common practice of foam rolling. Using a foam roller is one of the more effective avenues of myofascial release. If you’ve never used a foam roller before, I cannot stress enough how important these are in relieving soreness. This is the only way I know where you can get an intense deep tissue massage without shelling out over $100 to a salon.

What Is A Foam Roller & What Exactly Is It Doing To Me?

So you’ve read that foam rolling is a great tool to relieve soreness, and that’s all fine and dandy, but a lot of people don’t even know what a foam roller is! It’s quite simple, actually. A foam roller is a cylindrical piece of hard foam, typically one to three feet in length. It honestly has a pretty similar appearance to a small wooden log, but thankfully not as rough!

A review of myofascial release by Mark Barnes defined it as a “…hands-on soft tissue technique that facilitates a stretch into the restricted fascia…where after a few releases the tissue will become softer and more pliable.” Post exercise muscles tend to build up lactic acid. This build of up lactic acid is what contributes to those painful cramps throughout the body, also known as “trigger points.” Pressing on a foam roller softens and lengthens the fascia, breaking down that lactic acid, scar tissue, and adhesions between skin, muscles, and bones.

Foam Roller Benefits

Exercise isn’t the only culprit of soreness. Any repetitive movement, poor posture, or dysfunctional effort can negatively affect the body.  There are many benefits of foam rolling. According to the National Academy of Sports Medicine, when utilized prior to exercise and post exercise, foam rollers can help correct muscle imbalances, improved range of motion in joints and neuromuscular efficiency, improves mobility and flexibility, decrease the effects of stress on the body, decrease recovery time between workouts by removing the lactic acid build up, suppress and/or reduce sensitivity and pain, and relax muscles. Overall, foam rolling can improve a person’s everyday ability to move pain free, in addition to enhancing performance.

In addition to the physical benefits, foam rolling is easy on the wallet and the typical roller costs anywhere from $10-30. The next best way to relieve muscles and knots, and break down the lactic acid built up during your workout is to see a massage therapist. However, seeing a massage therapist on a regular basis get pricey. The last time I went and got a real massage it was like $110! Foam rolling will save you money and provide the same physical benefits. Plus, it’s a one time purchase as opposed to a recurring cost like getting massages.

For those of you who work eight hours a day at a desk, foam rolling can also bring some relief. Long periods of sitting at a desk can result in soreness, exhaustion, and painful muscles spasms and knots. Using a foam roller before, during, or after work will help loosen and lengthen joints and muscles, thus improving range of motion. Regularly utilizing a foam roller can help keep you keep better posture and they are easy to store in an office, cubicle, or just under a desk! For those who work on your feet all day or wear uncomfortable shoes, foam rolling your feet with a tennis or lacrosse ball will also provide some relief. They are easy to store in a drawer and can be done will standing or seated at a desk.

Best Practices: What To Do & What Not To Do

Foam roller exercises are performed on the floor with the roller pressed against the muscle group being treated. You then move your body back and forth slowly in an even tempo. The feeling of a foam roller on those trigger points is best described as the same feeling you get with a deep tissue massage. It can be uncomfortable at times, but will ultimately aid in recovery.

It’s also important to note that foam rolling should be utilized even when you’re not sore. Foam rolling is as much of a preventative technique as for relief, so make sure to practice it regularly to help avoid DOMS. Due to popular demand foam rollers are available in a variety of densities, thus individualizing the intensity of the massage. As a self-imposed technique, foam rolling can be administered at whatever level you are comfortable with which is nice because it allows you to receive a personalized stretching experience.

While foam rolling is a great way to shed the damaged tissue in your muscles, it’s crucial to avoid common mistakes and make smart choices. If not performed properly, foam rolling could worsen the condition. Here are a few tips to keep your technique and form in check:

1. Do not roll directly where you feel pain. In an article discussing foam rolling mistakes to avoid, Christine Yu quotes Sue Hitzman, MS, CST, NMT, manual therapist, and author and creator of The Melt Method: “Areas of pain are the victims that result from tension imbalances in other areas of the body…If you iron out areas of inflammation, you can increase inflammation. And if you are in pain, your body will be too stressed to repair itself.” How do you avoid this mistake? Don’t roll directly on those tender areas. Roll around the sore areas to release built up tension around them.

2. Do not roll too quickly. The more slowly you move, the better more time your body will have to respond to the muscle release. Move slowly so that muscles have some time to compress and acclimate.

3. Roll when you aren’t feeling sore. It is as much of a preventative technique as it is a recovery practice.

4. Do not spend too much time working on those sore areas. Just because you’re tender doesn’t mean that you need to roll those spots out for an hour. In her article, Five Foam Rolling Techniques, Yu writes that foam rolling applies a lot of pressure and all you really need is about 20 seconds on each sensitive spot. The amount of body weight you apply also affects the amount of pressure your muscles are receiving. Try not to place all of your body weight on the foam roller while you’re working on those areas.

5. Give worked areas between 24 and 48 hours rest before rolling it out again. Although it might be sore and tempting, rest is a necessity. Think about it like the recommendation for weight lifting. If you focus on one area you need to give your muscles time to rest and recover.

6. Watch your posture. While foam rolling you have to hold your body over the roller in odd positions that often require great strength. If you aren’t paying attention to your form it could exacerbate postural deviations and cause additional injury to the body.

7. Do not use a foam roller on your lower back. Use it on your upper back instead. When a foam roller us used on the low back your muscles will contract and protect the spine. If muscles are contracting, rather than relaxing, the effect is lost and can cause more harm than good. Massaging the upper back actually massages the shoulder blades.

8. Listen to your body. You know your body the best, so if it hurts in a stabbing with knives sort of way don’t do it. Stretching should always be done to the point of discomfort, not to the point of agony.

9. Foam roll prior to a strenuous workout. Foam rolling is a form of stretching, and it is highly recommended to stretch both before and after exercise. Rolling before a hard workout can help warm your muscles up and protect your body from strains.

After foam rolling you may be sore the next day. This is to be expected, just like if you were to get a deep tissue massage. Make sure not to push yourself to the extent of extreme soreness. Your muscles should just feel like they’ve been worked on and released. Drink water, get rest, and go about your daily routine as you would if you were sore post workout. The last thing you want to do when suffering from DOMS is stay still. Just remember to get up and move around for a few minutes throughout the day.

Conclusion

Although foam rollers offer a variety of benefits, it is not recommended for everyone. It is best to consult a physician prior to using a foam roller if you have any known health issues. Stacy Penny, NASM Certified Personal Trainer, CES, PES and FNS, wrote an article about foam rolling for the National Academy of Sports Medicine. In her article she lists a few cases in which rolling is not appropriate. If you suffer from congestive heart failure, kidney failure, or any organ failure, bleeding disorder, or contagious skin disease, using a foam roller is inadvisable. If you experience sharp pains or discomfort after beginning your foam roller regimen, it is also important to consult a physician.

Now that you know the many benefits of foam rolling and are ready to go out and get your own foam roller just keep those helpful tips in mind. Keep your rolling routine gentle, but constant and enjoy the benefits of myofascial release.