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Foam Rolling 101: Who Should Do It, When to Do It, and How to Do It

Foam Rolling 101: Who Should Do It, When to Do It, and How to Do It

By Katie McCallum

Foam rolling: That hurts-so-good muscle recovery must-do that you either hate to love or love to hate. No matter how you feel about it, you have probably turned to a foam roller a time or two to relieve some nagging muscle pain that just won't go away. But how much do you really know about foam rolling?

Foam rolling is a type of soft tissue work that's more formally called myofascial release, and it can help alleviate muscle pain and tension caused by adhesions that can form between your muscle and your fascia. Often, these adhesions, called myofascial adhesion, are a large contributing factor to painful muscle knots.

You likely have a few questions about that dense roll of foam you so often turn to when in pain, and the following should demystify the basics behind foam rolling.

Why foam rolling works. Before addressing why foam rolling works, we first need to talk about why myofascial adhesion even happens in the first place. Your fascia is a layer of tissue that surrounds your muscles, separating them from your other organs. As you move, your muscles should ideally glide smoothly underneath your fascia. But, in the space between your muscle (myo) and your fascia, myofascial adhesions can form — causing the muscle to get stuck during the gliding process, leading to muscle knots. Adhesion formation is a natural part of the muscle-building process.

Any time you are exercising, whether you are strength training or doing cardio, you are going to have a little muscle breakdown. Not only is this normal, but it's what you want to happen since it's one of the early steps in the muscle-building process. While repairing this breakdown, new collagen fibers are used to lay down new muscle. These newer collagen fibers are more disorganized and pliable than your established muscle, and their tangly nature is what can lead to the formation of myofascial adhesions. Foam rolling works to help ensure that these newer, messier collagen fibers lay down flat and in parallel with your existing muscle — reducing the chance of myofascial adhesions forming as you build new muscle.

When and how to foam roll. Maybe foam rolling is part of your weekly workout routine. Or, maybe you only foam roll when you start to feel that nagging muscle pain flare back up. But, even when you do finally get around to foam rolling, are you doing it correctly?

Since foam rolling can help prevent myofascial adhesions from forming as you build new muscle, you should foam roll before and after workouts. It's great for recovery, so also foam roll the day after a heavy workout.

The following tips will help ensure that you foam roll correctly:

  • Foam roll before and after workouts and before stretching.
  • Foam roll the muscle groups used during workouts, as well as the ones above and below these muscle groups.
  • Foam roll each muscle group for about one minute, making sure not to exceed two minutes on a particular muscle group.
  • Make sure the muscle you are targeting is extended and in a stretch.
  • Roll through the entire muscle.
  • After a lot of running, jumping, and squatting, your glutes, quads, and hamstrings got a good workout, be sure you foam roll each of these muscles for about a minute. Also roll your lower back and calves.
  • Stretch through the muscle group you are foam rolling, e.g., if you are rolling your calf, be sure that your toe is pointed and leg extended.
  • Unusual soreness the day after foam rolling, suggests that you may have foam rolled too long or too aggressively. Do not foam roll a particular muscle group longer than two minutes. Set a timer to help keep you from overdoing it.

How to pick a foam roller. There are a lot of foam roller options, and they vary by price, foam density, and surface texture. When you buy a cheap foam roller, you are probably just getting a roll of foam, which will be too soft and have too much give under the weight of your body. Choose a foam roller with a hard plastic inner cylinder and a thick layer of dense foam on the outside. A well-made, effective foam roller should not give too much, even with your entire body weight on top of it.

Foam rollers that add "deep tissue massage" into their name and look like they are sure to bring added pain, are specialty foam rollers that aid in trigger-point release.

Foam rollers that have ridges or knobs on the surface are multipurpose. They can be used for myofascial release as you roll through a muscle group, and for trigger-point release if you find a knot while foam rolling. Adding pressure to the knot via the roller's knobs or ridges, can help loosen it. Be sure to keep it under 30 seconds."

The key to making your foam-rolling sessions successful is to choose a foam roller that's effective and use it regularly. Invest in a good foam roller, and make foam rolling a regular part of your pre- and post-workout routine.

Video – “Foam rolling techniques for baseball”:


Katie McCallum is a writer and biomedical scientist at Methodist Hospital, Houston, Texas.

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