The Many Benefits of Foam Rolling

Foam Rolling For More Than Just Relaxation

Liz wrote: “Hi! I’m a new listener, slowly working through the backlog of episodes. Has there ever been an episode that highlighted foam rolling? I’m new to that also and pretty sure I’m making mistakes. Help?”

Great question Liz, but before we get rolling (heh), there are a few things I need to explain.

Each of us humans are made up of about 70 trillion cells including neurons, muscle cells, and epithelia which generally all work in relative harmony. Fascia is the biological fabric that literally holds us together in our human meat-sack form. Fascia itself has been described as a 3-D spider web of fibrous, wet, and sticky proteins that bind us together and help us maintain proper alignment.

When your body’s fascia is working properly, it is elastic and stretches and moves in all directions with the rest of your body. But often because of hard workouts, or maybe bad posture, or some strange movement patterns, or even emotional and physical stress, and other lifestyle factors, our fascia can become tight and stiff which restricts our movement and can cause us pain.

When people feel this tightness or stiffness, they usually whip out their yoga mat and do their best to “stretch it out” but conventional stretching (and even hard core yoga) on its own, doesn’t do much to release really tight fascia.

What does work is direct pressure from a massage therapist, or a tool like a foam roller (or a lacrosse ball) and I believe all you get-fit people already know how important it is to have muscles and fascia that are supple and elastic in order to perform your best at your chosen activities in this get-fit life.

Going to a massage therapist and having them go-to-town on your abused muscles is technically a passive application of pressure. According to Biomechanist, Katy Bowman, “Whether a therapist is applying pressure (think pushing down onto your body) or creating a shearing motion (not pushing as deeply, but just enough to create traction followed by a “sliding” action) the result is a tensile load to the tissues below the skin.”

Getting a massage is most people’s favorite passive therapy. When you think of having a treat-yo-self day, I bet that day includes getting a luxurious massage. That is likely because getting a massage blends relaxation (maybe even a nap) with the magical hands of a good therapist. Sadly, the majority of Registered Massage Therapists (RMTs) have bills to pay and families to feed so we can’t always afford to splurge on their services. That is where Foam Rolling comes in handy.

What is a Foam Roller?

Foam rollers are exercise devices that can be used for both self-massage and fitness. They are usually long and cylindrical, but they come in many shapes, sizes, lengths, textures and densities. Texture and density being the two major factors to keep in mind when purchasing a foam roller. If you haven’t seen one before I encourage you to stop reading and do a Google Image search. The rest of this will make a lot more sense once you know what we are looking at.

Getting intimate with your foam roller is technically also a passive tensile treatment which comes pretty darn close to recreating the effect of a real therapeutic massage. Something that is often missed by tightly wound noobs is learning how to soften your body at will. The benefit of either a massage or a foam rolling session is a combination of what the therapist or the roller is doing to you and how you interact with the fingers or the roller. To get the most out of either you need to practice relaxing your body, especially when the pressure feels like it is too much to take. Using some deep exhalations and even thinking (or saying) the work “relax” on an exhale can really help.

Is there more to getting a massage or rolling on a foam roller than just being relaxed into a puddle of fascia? There sure is!

Some research from 2012 suggests that just 10 minutes of deep tissue massage post-workout enhances the effectiveness of the mitochondria (those tiny cellular power plants) while also creating a natural pain-relieving effect and reducing inflammation.

Sure, that study involved a measly 11 men but the scientists didn’t just take the guy’s word for it, they actually stuck needles into their legs to biopsy their quadriceps muscles to quantify the findings. If you have ever had one, you will know that a muscle biopsy is nothing to sneeze at.

Enough About Massage

Rolling on foam roller has been shown to have the same effect on adhesions and knots as a good massage. Locked up tissues can lead to imbalances throughout the body and rolling can help bring fluid balance back into the muscles, which over time, can increase mobility and flexibility.

Just like when you were a bendy child and didn’t have the weight of the world on your tense and stiff shoulders.

The idea is that by applying pressure to a specific point on your body, you are able to aid in the recovery of muscles and assist in returning them to normal function. Which means your muscles go back to being elastic, flexy, stretchy, healthy, and ready to perform all those amazing feats you want them to at a moment’s notice, just like when you were a bendy child and didn’t have the weight of the world on your tense and stiff shoulders.

Why Does It Hurt?

Those areas of intense pain are called trigger points that can be thought of as specific “knots” that form in muscles. Trigger points can be identified by the way that they often refer pain. Pain referral can be described as the pain we feel when pressure is applied to one area of the body, except that the pain is felt (or radiated) into another area of the body.

An example that many of you will be familiar with is felt while foam rolling your iliotibial band (IT Band) as it very often causes pain to radiate up to the hip or all the way down the leg to the ankle. Some athletes I work with over at have mentioned getting referred pain in their groin while rolling out their foot with a tennis ball. Weird!


At this point, I think it is probably prudent of me to warn you. When you are rolling or working on your tight and sore muscles, you will experience discomfort. That discomfort can also become pain. This pain is often very similar to the pain you get while stretching, especially first thing in the morning. It is uncomfortable, sometimes inching toward being unbearable, but when you breathe through it and don’t chicken out,  you will feel like a million bucks… we’ll hopefully at least 100 bucks.

Another quick warning before we get into the how of foam rolling: it is recommended that you consult with your physician or physical therapist if you do experience sharp pain. If you have lingering injuries or other specific movement limitations, you may also want to receive approval before starting any self-myofascial release. Most people have no issues but If you have a slipped disc, for example, you need to tread (or roll) lightly.

How Does It Work?

By rolling the stuff foam tube over your body, it helps break up or relax tight muscles and adhesions formed between muscle layers and their surroundings. Imagine it like you are tenderizing your own muscles. Yes, like a steak. It’s kind of like that but you don’t get a delicious meal at the end.

The deep compression of self-myofascial release allows normal blood flow to return, which facilitates the restoration of healthy tissue. The good news about your body is that it naturally wants to be healthy and strong. The bad news is that sometimes an extra boost is needed to achieve this.

How To Do It

To foam roll properly, place the roller on the floor and place your body on top of it. Then apply moderate pressure to a specific muscle or muscle group using the roller and your body weight. Roll slowly, no more than one inch (or a couple centimetres) per second. When you find areas that are tight or painful, pause for several seconds to breathe and relax as much as you can (this will get easier with practice). While you breathe into it, you should slowly start to feel that dastardly tight muscle twitching and releasing. After 30 seconds the discomfort or pain should lessen but if it doesn’t it is wise to come at that spot from a different angle.

If a tough area just won’t seem to let go, shift the roller and apply pressure to a surrounding area and work from many angles to loosen the entire area. Remember this is not a pain tolerance test so if it hurts too much or the discomfort is lasting too long, move on and come back to the area later on – or perhaps even wait up to 48 hours.

Quick Tips for Foam Rolling

It would be pretty hard
\to explain how to foam roll each part of your body, so I encourage you to spend some time on YouTube. There is a fun (and slightly noisy) video by my friend Katy Bowman that I recommend you check out. James Dunne from Kinetic Revolution also has a good playlist of Foam Rolling videos. But here are some tips to get started:

  1. Roll each muscle group for 1-2 minutes. I usually do 10 rolls per body part (up + down = 1 roll)
  2. Roll slowly. This is not a race or a workout… although foam rolling can be used as a workout.
  3. When you find a tight, painful or uncomfortable spot, hold on that spot for 30-45 seconds. You should feel the tension release.
  4. Keep breathing, in through the nose and out through the mouth. Holding your breath won’t allow the muscles to relax.
  5. Focus on relaxing the muscle as much as you can. If you are flexing or tensing the muscle group that you are rolling out, it won’t work as well.
  6. Drink plenty of water for the next few hours. Your body needs to flush of the lactic acid byproducts that are released by the rolling.
  7. The next day your muscles may be a bit sore but that is normal, especially when you first start rolling. It gets better and easier quite quickly – hang in there.
  8. Wait 24-48 hours to foam roll again, especially if you are sore.
  9. Never roll on a joint or bone. Nothing bad will likely happen but it won’t feel good or give you any benefit.
  10. Like I said before if an area is too painful to roll, shift the roller and apply pressure to the surrounding area to slowly loosen the entire area.

Again, depending on how tight and stiff you were, you may be sore the next day from your heroic rolling efforts. It should feel like your muscles have been worked but you shouldn’t have excessive soreness. If you do, you either went too hard, too long or too deep. Back off the next time you roll.

Just like after a good workout, after you roll, drink some water, get a good night’s sleep, and eat some wholesome food. Give it 24-48 hours before focusing on the same area again, especially if you are sore.

What are the benefits?

Rolling Returns Range of Motion

The lifestyle of us fit people can often cause our fascia to tighten and cause the trigger points or “knots” we talked about earlier, which can restrict mobility and performance. Foam rolling has been shown to relieve those knots and return muscles back to their normal range of motion.

Rolling Helps with Recovery

Hard workouts, overuse, injury, and even being sedentary can cause your fascia to tighten, become inflamed and irritated. Foam rolling breaks up those knots which can actually help increase circulation to your muscles and connective tissues. With better circulation and more oxygen, your muscles can recover faster and you’ll experience less muscle soreness.

Rolling is Relaxing

The same way massage relaxes us, foam rolling also applies direct pressure to tight muscles and knots. Rolling over your muscles and trigger points creates a similar (and less expensive) effect that an RMT uses when digging their bony and surprisingly strong fingers into your muscles.

Rolling Returns Natural Muscle Length

Foam rolling can allow you to stretch your muscles more efficiently as well by breaking down scar tissue that prevents you from stretching your deepest stretch. It also allows muscles to return to their natural length, which leads to proper muscle function.

Rolling Corrects Muscle Imbalances and Reduces Risk of Injury

Muscle imbalances often improve from relaxing overactive, tight muscles, and allowing for proper, balanced movement to strengthen the weak, underactive muscles. And as an added bonus, when your muscles are functioning properly there is less risk of injury.


A study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise investigated whether foam rolling could reduce soreness and boost recovery by looking at the impact of a foam rolling protocol on soreness following a squat workout.

For this study, twenty men were split into two groups. Both groups underwent a killer squat protocol, with ten sets of ten back squats at 60% of one-rep squat maximum. After the squats, both groups were evaluated on soreness level, quadriceps and hamstring range of motion, performance on a vertical leap test, and measurements of muscle electrical activity. After the post-squat soreness and range of motion tests, half the men foam rolled and the other half hit the showers.

In the end, the foam rolling had three effects:

  1. It significantly reduced muscle soreness.
  2. It caused a significant increase in quadriceps range of motion.
  3. It led to better performance in a vertical leap test.

Another study in the International Journal of Sports Therapy suggests that “foam rolling and roller massage may be effective interventions for enhancing joint ROM and pre and post exercise muscle performance.”

Foam Rolling is more than just a stand-in for a trip to see your local Registered Massage Therapist.

So there we have it. Foam Rolling is more than just a stand-in for a trip to see your local sport RMT. It is itself a valuable and worthwhile activity.

Fascia is always being generated throughout your body and without proper maintenance the fibres may not form in the ways we want them to which can lead to pain or movement limitations. Many of the stresses that we fit folks put on our bodies every day (like running, lifting, cycling, carrying a heavy child, or even just sitting at a computer) can affect how our old fascia functions as well as how our new fascia is developed. Foam Rolling can help to keep trigger points relaxed and scar tissue at bay in all our muscle tissue and fascia, which in turn allows us to be the flexible, active, mobile and strong humans that we strive to be.