In the corner of my living room, there’s a container filled with foam rollers of all shapes and sizes. Cylinders, balls, mini balls, double balls, mini rollers. I sometimes make a detour around that corner of my apartment because I feel guilty for not using them as often as I should. But since doing research for this article, I’ve stopped avoiding foam rollers. Keep reading if you want to know why and if you want to learn how to use foam rollers the right way.
- Always roll in only one direction/towards the core
Most people think that foam rolling is supposed to be a back-and-forth movement. Experts, however, recommend foam rolling in only one direction. There are two reasons for this.
Venous valves, which control blood flow, open up towards the glutes instead of the lower leg. That’s why it is detrimental to the venous valves if you’re rolling in the wrong direction. In the long run, this can even lead to varicose veins. However, when you’re only rolling towards the heart, your connective tissue loosens up and reduces stiffness.1
Fascia contains water which is expelled under compression. That’s why foam rolling has positive effects on muscles stiffness and flexibility.2 You will achieve the greatest effects when rolling towards the core instead of back and forth.
- Pre-rolling improves sprint performance
If you’re a sprinter, you might want to consider foam rolling prior to exercise because it improves flexibility and therefore your sprint performance. Studies also suggest that the fact that athletes perceive less pain after foam rolling makes them run faster.3
- Post-rolling improves recovery, speed, and strength performance
You’ve probably heard it before, but if you foam roll after intense exercise, your body needs less time to recover.3 And the faster you recover, the more time you have to get in quality training, which means that you’ll also get faster easier.
- Foam Rolling breaks down trigger points
Trigger points are “muscle knots” of about 2-10mm in the myofascia. They are palpable and when compressed, they can elicit local twitch responses or jump signs.4 Trigger points can be one reason for unexplained aches and pains. Foam rolling can break those trigger points and therefore saves you from muscle pain (and possibly from a few visits to the physio).5 When you find a sore spot while you are foam rolling, pause and hold for 20 to 30 seconds. Expect it to be painful, but it’s worth it!
- Feedback on recovery status
If you foam roll on a regular basis, you can use the feedback you get through muscle pain to evaluate the workout’s effect on your body. Normally, your legs will be very sore after running intervals, so foam rolling will be more painful than after an easy run. This feedback can also be a great way to find out if you have recovered well after a hard workout or race and determine when you can schedule the next tempo run.
- Treatment of injuries
Foam rolling increases blood flow in sore muscles and increases circulation.2 Depending on what kind of injury you have, be careful not to roll exactly on the spot that is hurting. For example, if you’re dealing with Achilles tendonitis, you should roll your calves and the sole of the foot as they are often related to the pain in your tendon. Make sure to talk to your doctor or physio to find out which areas you can foam roll and which to stay away from.
- Do not roll your IT band
The IT band is not a muscle. If you are dealing with iliotibial band issues, the pain might be caused by muscular imbalances in other areas. So even if your IT band is hurting, you’re not treating the real problem by foam rolling it. Matthias Scheible, expert in physio therapy and osteopathy, recommends foam rolling the surrounding muscles instead. This includes the glutes, quads, and the hamstrings.
- Do not roll with excessive force
Before you go all in with foam rolling, put only little pressure on your muscles at first. If the pain lessens right away, you’re good to go. If it takes more than 10 to 15 seconds to disappear, Matthias Scheible recommends to stop foam rolling as the pain might be caused by something else than sore muscles. In this case, foam rolling can even be detrimental to your muscles or the surrounding tissue.
- Diversify your foam rolling
There are a lot more kinds of foam rollers out there than the cylinder. Generally speaking, the smaller the foam roller, the more punctual the compression on the muscle.
Here’s what to do with which foam roller:
Ball: This is your tool to break down trigger points even more efficiently. Roll your calves, foot, or shoulders.
Cylindric foam roller: This one’s best for rolling your hamstrings, quads, or latissimus.
Mini foam rollers: Because of their small size, these foam rollers are great for traveling. They work best for your calves and feet.
Double balls: There’s a gap between the two balls so that you can roll the areas alongside your spine.
- Your foam roller is also a good training tool
Did you know that your foam roller is more than a recovery tool? You could also use it to mix up your strength training routine! (Here’s some inspiration for strength exercises.)
We all respond to foam rolling differently but research shows that it has both preventive and regenerative effects on muscle soreness after exercise.5 If you want to improve your flexibility, speed, and recovery time, you should add foam rolling to your recovery routine, but treat it like an addition to stretching and strength exercises, not a replacement.
1 “Faszienrolle: Verursacht Sie Krampfadern Oder Was Kann Sie Wirklich?” Health Tv, 2019, www.healthtv.de/mediathek/666/Faszienrolle_Verursacht_sie_Krampfadern_oder_was_kann_sie_wirklich.html.
2 Laffaye, Guillaume, et al. “Self-Myofascial Release Effect With Foam Rolling on Recovery After High-Intensity Interval Training.” Frontiers in Physiology, vol. 10, 2019, doi:10.3389/fphys.2019.01287.
3 Wiewelhove, Thimo, et al. “A Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Foam Rolling on Performance and Recovery.” Frontiers in Physiology, vol. 10, 2019, doi:10.3389/fphys.2019.00376.
4 Paul Ingraham, updated Jun 25. “The Complete Guide to Trigger Points & Myofascial Pain (2020).” Www.PainScience.com, 2020, www.painscience.com/tutorials/trigger-points.php.
5 Fleckenstein, Johannes, et al. “Preventive and Regenerative Foam Rolling Are Equally Effective in Reducing Fatigue-Related Impairments of Muscle Function Following Exercise.” Journal of Sports Science & Medicine, Uludag University, 1 Dec. 2017, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29238246.