10 Things You Should Know About Foam Rolling

Give your tired muscles the massage they deserve — it’ll hurt so good, you’ll be begging for more.

Photo: miljko / Getty Images

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

If you’re not yet foam rolling, what are you waiting for? The benefits are numerous, from improving range of motion in your joints to aiding postworkout recovery. And even if you fancy yourself a veteran foam roller, are you sure you’re doing it properly to reap the rewards?

As easy as it may sound, there are a few things to keep in mind as you get started with — or advance — your foam rolling routine.

Ready to give it a roll? Here’s what you should know about this practice:

Foam rolling involves something called myofascial release.

As fancy as it sounds, myofascial release is simply a practice that involves applying long, slow bouts of pressure to a problematic area of the muscle that’s contributing to discomfort, tension or knots, says Leada Malek, DPT, CSCS, SCS, board-certified sports physical therapist in San Francisco. Not only can this enhance joint range of motion, but it also can improve the recovery process by decreasing the effects of acute muscle soreness, delayed onset muscle soreness and post-exercise muscle performance.

You can roll most — but not all — parts of the body.

While you can roll any one of your muscles, you should avoid rolling over open wounds, acute injuries or bony parts of your body like your knees or hips, Malek says. If you have bursa sacs in certain areas, know that they may be irritated with the increase in compression. And while this depends on each individual, you may not even like areas of your spine like your neck or center of your lower back being rolled.

Not every injury is off-limits.

When you’re dealing with a fresh injury, like a muscle strain that’s 1 to 2 weeks old, you shouldn’t roll it because the foam rolling can be too aggressive for the inflammatory process that’s going on to heal, Malek says. Same goes for rolling anything that’s just been operated on. Yet there are some injuries that might warrant some foam rolling, and they include those that would benefit from gentle to medium massage — like an older strain or a tight muscle, she adds.

Your body will know where you need to roll.

No question that all your muscles will benefit from foam rolling, especially your glutes, adductors, hamstrings and calves, Malek says. But you can hone the rolling to your body by simply paying attention to particularly tight spots and then hanging out in that area with the roller.

There aren’t specific rules about how long you should roll or hold on a spot.

No organization has released specific foam-rolling guidelines, but Malek recommends moving anywhere from one to 60 seconds, or about 1 to 2 inches per second. If you’re holding in one spot, start with five to 15 seconds, depending on how you feel. “Base this off your tolerance and what feels like is helping and not making you feel worse,” she says.

You control how much pressure you apply.

As good as foam rolling is for your body, it can be uncomfortable, so much so that it can be compared to a deep tissue massage. “The discomfort stems from areas of your body with built-up tension, which foam rolling is helping release,” says Dyan Tsiumis, ACE-certified MYXfitness trainer in New York City. Yet that discomfort is part of the healing process.

Fortunately, you can control how much — or how little — pressure you’re putting on a bodypart. If it gets too painful, back off. Or if you need more, add more pressure. The key is listening to your body, she adds.

The more you do it, the better it will feel.

Foam rolling is like working out. “It never gets easier, but the more you do it, the more you acclimate to the sensations and learn to love the feeling,” Tsiumis says. If possible, try to set aside a few minutes every day to do foam rolling. “Just build five minutes into your workout routine to do this and make it a habit so you can help your body heal faster,” she advises.

Consider bookending your workouts with rolling.

You can use a foam roller any time of day — before a workout, after a workout, during the day if you’re feeling tight from being in your office or even before bed, if you think it will help relax you. But your best bet may be before and after your workouts.

“Foam rolling before a workout helps prep your body for exercise and can increase your range of motion,” Tsiumis says. This can be helpful when you’re trying to lift heavier or ride longer, she adds. Foam rolling after a workout caters more toward recovery, promoting healing and reducing the buildup of lactic acid in the blood. “Whichever you choose, foam rolling will help increase blood flow and lubricate your joints,” she says.

Maximize your time when foam rolling before a workout.

Building in time for foam rolling before your workout might be a challenge. So instead of trying to roll the entire body, focus on the parts of the body you’ll be moving most during your workout, Malek says. For instance, you might roll your legs before a run or move through some upper- back and lats rolling before an arm workout.

The foam roller you should buy is the one you’ll use the most.

If you haven’t gone shopping for a foam roller recently, you might be blown away by all the options on the market, including ones that are smooth, ones that have grooved surfaces and yet others that vibrate. While there is some evidence to suggest that the multi-surface and vibrating rollers may hold a slight advantage, there’s no wrong answer here, Malek says. Find the roller that you can tolerate — they come in different firmness levels — and that you want to use.