Foam Rolling: The Basics

16 February 2021
By Sandra Calva

If you’ve ever Googled DOMs, workout recovery or stretching, then chances are you’ve come across the concept of foam-rolling. While there’s conflicting evidence about how useful it is, and whether it’s better to do pre- or post-workout, it’s something that some people absolutely swear by for relieving that achy feeling after a good session and ensuring optimal performance in the gym. In this week’s blog, we’re delving into foam-rolling and the logic behind it.You’ve probably seen foam rollers lying around at your local gym – those bright tubes made of hard foam with a bumpy texture, in different sizes and with varying degrees of “give”. You may have also seen those spiky balls, which are designed for the same purpose of “myofascial release”.

Before we explore what this is and what it can offer, you first need to have an understanding of fascia.

So, what is “fascia”?

This term refers to strong connective tissue that surrounds our muscles and organs. It provides structural support to muscles by enveloping and protecting them from the friction produced upon exertion of force. Made up primarily of collagen and elastin, there are three types of fascia:

  • Superficial: found just below the skin
  • Subserous: surrounds and protects our organs
  • Deep fascia: mostly surrounds muscles, protecting and separating them. This type of fascia is the most susceptible to “knots” that lead to pain and stiffness. This is the type of fascia massaged during myofascial release

Problems caused by fascia

  • Pain can arise as a result of trigger points building up. The constant tear and repair of muscle tissue when we exercise means that fascia, in an attempt to protect the muscle tissue from further damage, will thicken and shorten
  • This can in turn lead to dense areas of tissue which prevent full range of motion. Tissues next to one another can no longer slide past one another as easily, resulting in stiffness. This can in turn lead to pain in other muscular groups as their movement is restricted
  • Upon damage to fascia, skin may become unable to slide over subcutaneous tissue, leading to suboptimal movement patterns. The joints may shift and cause contractile tissue to work much harder than they would otherwise, resulting in inflammation

Dealing with fascial problems

Aside from stretching, the primary way of dealing with fascial problems is via myofascial release. This is a form of massage therapy that relieves fascia that has become misaligned (“knotted”) due to injury, trauma or suboptimal movement patterns. This therapy aims to help improve future movement patterns by stretching and loosening the fascia to allow other structures to move more freely. According to research, just two minutes of self-myofascial release can improve muscles’ range of motion by 10%.

Myofascial release can be performed during sports massage, but you can also do it yourself in what is called “self-mysofascial release”. This is most commonly done by using a foam roller, but other tools can be used too, for example a tennis ball or rolling stick.

How do you use a foam roller?

The idea is to use your own body weight and the roller to apply pressure to fascial tissue in order to release it. Methods for rolling out some commonly problematic areas are described below:

  • Hamstrings and glutes: sit with legs extended out and foam roller placed underneath them. Place hands either side of hips and use them to initiate the movement of rolling your legs back and forth over the foam roller. Move slowly, rolling the full length of the hamstring and glute and pausing close to spots of pain. Rotate your legs to ensure you roll out all sides of your hamstrings
  • Shins: position yourself on your hands and knees with the foam roller placed underneath your shins. Pitch forward, bringing your weight forwards and your shoulders in front of your hands, allowing the foam roller to move towards your ankles. Move your weight back again, rolling the full length of your shin, from ankle to just below knee, taking care to not roll directly over your knee
  • Quadriceps: lie on your front with the roller under your thighs. Place your hands either side of your shoulders and lift your feet off of the ground. Use your arms to move your body backwards and forwards, allowing the full length of your quadriceps to be rolled out, from hip flexor to just above the knee

Common mistakes when foam rolling

  • Stopping and applying too much pressure to the point of pain: often the perceived area of pain is not necessarily the source of the pain. For example, referred pain felt in the IT band may be caused by issues emanating from the glutes. Rolling constantly over the painful area can exacerbate the pain and potentially cause further inflammation and injury. Instead, roll away from the area of pain until you reach an attachment point. Stop and roll here, before gently rolling back toward the area of pain
  • Rolling too quickly: when foam rolling, movement must be slow and deliberate, in order to apply enough enough pressure to release the fascial tissue
  • Staying on one area too long: the maximum time spent stopping and applying body weight pressure to one area should be 20-30 seconds. If you are new to rolling, you may wish to begin using only half your body weight as pressure before working up to full body weight
  • Bad form: it’s important to maintain good posture when rolling, by engaging your core. Ensure you do not roll when overly fatigued and unable to maintain good form
  • Do not roll over joints or bone: make sure you only roll as far as above or below the knee joint and avoid rolling your lower back. If you do wish to apply the myofascial release technique to your back or neck, use a tennis ball instead

When should you foam roll?

Foam rolling may be done before or after a workout. The advantage of rolling out before a workout is that it may increase blood flow and allow for greater range of motion, which in turn will lead to better movement patterns. The key advantage of rolling out after a workout is that it may aid sore muscle recovery. In conclusion, if possible, rolling out both before and after a workout is ideal, but picking either one will offer benefits

Useful links

Video detailing some foam rolling basics:


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