If I’m being honest, foam rolling is the activity I pick to feel like I’m doing something semi-productive while I’m really just relaxing and having social time at the gym. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, and I don’t think I’m alone in that confession. However, there is some science behind foam rolling, what it accomplishes, when you should do it, and how. Below is a summary of foam rolling research findings and how you can incorporate these findings into your wellness routine (for the days when you want your time on the foam roller to do more than serve as a post-workout hangout activity).
What does foam rolling actually do?
In a systematic review by Cheatham et al. (2015), foam rolling appeared to promote short-term improvements in joint range of motion, without negatively affecting muscle performance.
What that means for your workout: Foam rolling alone isn’t going to improve your joint mobility in the long-term; strengthening in and regularly moving through your full range of motion will. However, since foam rolling seems to improve range of motion temporarily, and performing strength movements in end-ranges does help improve your long-term mobility, you can use foam rolling pre-workout to achieve increased ease of movement at the end of your range, so that you can strengthen there to get those long-term mobility gains.
Quick-and-dirty takeaway: Foam roll pre-workout and then do movements that take advantage of the more mobile tissues you just foam rolled. For example, if you have tight shoulders and struggle with overhead movements, foam roll your lats and pecs, then do overhead exercises to capitalize on that temporary improvement in your shoulder tightness.
Foam rolling has also been found to increase blood flow to the worked-over tissues (Hotfiel et al., 2017). This would support the additional findings by Cheatham et al. that suggest foam rolling reduces delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and post-workout drops in muscle performance. Makes sense since blood is what carries nutrients to and carries waste away from your tissues. Increased blood flow also increases the temperature of a tissue, so improving blood flow to a muscle helps warm up and prepare a muscle for activity.
What that means for your workout: Foam roll pre-workout to help warm up your muscles without reducing their performance. Foam roll post-workout to reduce soreness the next day.
How do I foam roll to accomplish these benefits? Cheatham et al.’s systematic review indicated that as little as 30 seconds can garner the benefits of foam rolling. Choose your target areas based on what exercises or activity you will be doing/just did, then spend 30 seconds (up to 90 seconds) on each selected muscle.
Example 1: Let’s say you’re going to do some squats and want improved ankle mobility to squat a little lower. Opt to foam roll your calves; do 30 seconds on the inside calf, 30 seconds on the straight back of the calf, and 30 seconds on the outside calf.
Example 2: You just did a bunch of jump-roping and are pretty sure walking will be tough tomorrow due to sore calves. Do the same routine from example 1: 30 seconds on each aspect of the calf.
Check out our Instagram post for video demos of lower body foam rolling (and a cameo by Millie the dog).
Here at Peak Endurance Performance & Physical Therapy we help active adults in the Madison Area get back to the activities they love without pain or limitations. We see people of all ages, ability levels, and individuals trying to get back to a multitude of movements including: getting back into running, women postpartum, CrossFit athletes, climbers, gymnasts, wrestlers, overhead athletes, and your recreational weekend warrior. If you’re looking to get back to the activities that give you meaning, relieve stress, and make you feel like you again, feel free to reach out below and we’ll see if we’re the right fit for you.