How (and when) to Foam Roll

Chances are you've heard of foam rollers. Or you've at least seen them stacked near the stretch mats at your gym. If you've tried one, you may have also wondered if you were using it correctly. Like, is this seemingly arbitrary rolling around motion right?!  

(Maybe that was just me)

I was formally introduced to foam rollers when I became a trainer. I had seen them before, but thought they were only for rehab, hard-core runners, or for after a workout if you were super sore.

Turns out that wasn't totally off base, they can be used for all those reasons, but foam rollers can also be used before a workout, alongside any type of exercise (not just running), and can help with injury prevention, not just the recovery after. 

Want a little backstory?

Thought so! The introduction and use of foam rollers is generally attributed to Moshé Feldenkrais. Feldenkrasis was an Israeli engineer and physicist who developed the Feldenkrasis Method, which utilizes gentle movement to improve range of motion, flexibility, and coordination. It gained US popularity in the 80's after Feldenkrasis held live training seminars in California and Massachusetts.

While some in the scientific community have disputed its effectiveness, this method is still taught and practiced today. 

The use of foam rollers in a gym settling was introduced in the early 2000's by Michael Clark, a sports therapist and CEO of the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), in his book, Integrated Training for the New Millennium.

Over the next few decades its use slowly caught on with athletes and elite weight lifters as a tool for reducing achy muscles and improving performance in the gym. And now they are everywhere! 

So is it better to foam roll before or after a workout? 

The answer is both! You can use a slightly different application and technique depending on the timing of your roll. But if you only have time for one, I recommend pre-workout. Here's why.  

When used as a warm-up or movement prep tool, foam rolling will help loosen up your muscles and increase your flexibility without relaxing them too much (thus weakening your strength). This leads to safer workouts with less injury. 

It can also be an effective tool to help you mentally transition to a workout as well. We often rush to the gym before or after work, and taking two minutes to start with foam rolling allows your mind to connect with your body and switch focus to your workout.  

What is the best technique? 

Foam rolling can be used as a movement prep tool, where the goal is to release tension and improve flexibility, or as a post-workout tool, where the goal is to help relieve sore muscles and relax any tension created during the workout. 

The approach for both is similar, but warm-up should be shorter (as you don't want to completely relax a muscle before you work it out), and post-workout should be a little longer and more relaxed.

Think of foam rolling as a poor man's massage, you want to use the roller to release tension in the same way you would feel during a massage.

(This means sometimes it can be painful!)

Divide each muscle in half, and complete 4-5 rolls with a forward and backward motion. When you find a tight spot, hang out for a few seconds and breathe deeply. You can also add a small side to side movement when you hit a tight spot to help relieve the tension.

Keep your rolling sessions short and targeted, around 2-5 minutes is sufficient. Always listen to the feedback your body is giving you, it won't always feel good, but it shouldn't be excoriating either. And don't forget to breathe deeply and try to relax into the roller! 

Here is an example two minute foam rolling warm-up routine: 

Any other questions about foam rolling? Drop them below! Also note that the first few times you try it, you may roll around and feel ridiculous. As with anything new, this will go away, and it will become second nature in no time!


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