03/30 2016

Foam Rolling: What It Is, Why You Should Do It, and How to Get Started

After a hard workout or a stressful week, getting a massage can be one of the most relaxing things you can do for yourself. Tight, sore muscles and trigger points can all be released with the healing touch of a massage therapist.

If you don’t have the access, time, or money for a massage therapist, we suggest that you give foam rolling a try. It is an excellent alternative that provides deep tissue massage at a fraction of the price. And even better, you can foam roll at home whenever you want!

What is foam rolling?

Foam rolling is a type of self-myofascial release (SMR). SMR is a technical term for releasing tight muscles, fascia, and trigger points with self-massage. A foam roller is simply the tool you use to apply pressure to each muscle group.

Why should I foam roll?

Recent studies have shown that foam rolling can relieve tight and sore fascia and muscles before or after a workout.

Foam rolling will help you:

  • Reduces soreness. Exercise is basically micro trauma to your muscles. This can lead to tight and knotted muscles and fascia. Using a foam roller for active stretching will help roll out tight spots, relieve tension and return muscles to their normal length after a workout. Toxins are flushed out and blood circulation is increased to the muscles that you worked during exercise. This helps to aid in recovery and speed healing.
  • Returns muscles to original range of motion and may even increase it.When your muscles are worked hard, they tighten and shorten. This in turn causes the fascia to thicken and tighten to protect your muscles below. Those knots and trigger points you feel? Those are actually from tight fascia. Foam rolling helps to release these tight spots and free up the fascia which will allow your muscles to lengthen and return to their original size.

While foam rolling is generally great to do on your own, if you have any nagging injuries or suspect a pulled muscle, always consult your doctor before adding foam rolling to your exercise program.

Foam rolling before your workout

Prior to working out, foam rolling has been shown to help increase range of motion without reducing muscle performance. In studies, foam rolling increased quadriceps range of motion by a small, but statistically significant amount. The increase in range of motion was highest right after foam rolling, up to 10 degrees of change, and decreased to less than one degree after two minutes rest. In the long term, you will get marginal increases in range of motion, but hey, if it helps you get more flexible and maybe finally reach high enough to get to the top shelf, it’s paid off.

Foam rolling after your workout

The number one reason to foam roll after a workout is because it feels so good. After pushing hard and giving 100% effort, giving your muscles the gift of self-myofascial release is priceless. Post workout you are able to bring your heart rate down, relax into each trigger point on the foam roller and feel the tension release. It’s a great 5-10 minute cool-down exercise.

Foam rolling feels so good because it alleviates the tension in your muscles and fascia as a result of high intensity training and helps relieve DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness). You control how much pressure is applied and to what muscle groups, so you can focus on the areas in most need of myofascial release.

How do I foam roll properly?

Use your bodyweight to regulate how much or how little pressure is applied to each area being rolled out.

You can get a good myofascial release spending just 5-10 minutes. Focus on the muscles you worked during exercise. You should spend around 2 minutes focused on each muscle group. For each muscle group, apply pressure to tender areas for a short amount of time, generally 20 seconds. Staying on a tender spot for 20 seconds, but not much longer, allows the tender spot to release. If you hold for a longer period of time then you risk bruising the muscles and fascia or aggravating a nerve. This is similar to how a massage practitioner will work on one area at a time.

As a starting point, try this basic foam roller routine from Coach Alba, including stretches for the calves, glutes, upper back, quads, and IT band.

Why does it hurt?

Foam rolling does hurt, but it’s that good, deep tissue massage kind of hurt. You are applying pressure to sore, tight areas, in order to release tension. Foam rolling should only be slightly uncomfortable during the rolling process. Any tension or pain you feel should go away as soon as you stop rolling that tight area.

If you are extremely sore from a tough workout, you may not want to roll directly on tight muscles as it may just be too painful. Give yourself a few days and then try rolling those areas again.

Ultimately you are experiencing temporary discomfort that leads to reduced overall muscle tension, soreness and leads to enhanced performance.

Where can I find a foam roller?

Foam rollers can be purchased at most sporting goods stores, online, at Amazon, and in many physical therapy offices.

Foam rollers come in different sizes and densities. It is helpful to do a little research on which one will be best for you first. Smaller rollers are good for travel, but larger, longer rollers are better for rolling out your back and legs. If you like a more intense massage, get a firmer foam roller. For less intensity, purchase a softer foam.

Foam roller alternatives

Rolling pin. Easy to use on quads and hamstrings. It’s also smaller for travel. You can find a similar tool at sporting goods stores, called “the stick.” Grab the handles at each end of the rolling pin or stick and simply roll out your quads, hamstrings and calves much like you are rolling out dough.

Bottle of wine. Coach Alba suggests you use a bottle of wine in place of a foam roller. It works great and is inexpensive. Plus, you can also enjoy the beverage inside!

Tennis ball. A tennis ball can be beneficial for hard to reach areas. You can use a tennis ball on your calves, between your shoulder blades and down the sides of the spine, on the arch of your foot and your neck. A tennis ball is slightly softer than a foam roller and can get into areas a foam roller cannot.

Lacrosse ball. You can use a lacrosse ball similar to a tennis ball. A lacrosse ball is a bit firmer but works the same areas. Both the lacrosse and tennis balls can work separate from the the foam roller, or in conjunction with foam roller stretching as additional deep tissue work.

DIY. If you get creative, there are many ways to build your own foam roller. Here’s an example with a PVC pipe, a camping mat, and some duct tape.


Next time you feel a little tight or sore, grab a foam roller and work out those muscles. 5-10 minutes is all it takes to get relief, increase circulation, and extend your range of motion.

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