What does foam rolling do?

In the scientific literature, we like to use fancy words for simple terms. Foam rolling is called “self myofascial release.” Told you it was fancy. The act of foam rolling doesn’t have to be as complicated as self myofascial release sounds, and it can be a very useful therapeutic tool for highly active individuals, like you.

What is Foam Rolling?

foam rolling for runners

Foam rolling is, in technical terms, “releasing” your muscles (myo) from your connective tissue surrounding the muscle (fascia). Think of when you throw a big blanket over your dog and watch him/her wriggle around inside until shaking free. The blanket is the fascia, and the dog is the muscle!

However, fascia surrounds every muscle fiber, so there are layers upon layers upon layers upon layers and so on. Now imagine your dog completely surrounded by 20 blankets for a more accurate metaphor (except your dog LOVES being under the covers – that’s home, just like it is for a muscle). If trying to shake the blankets off is exercise, eventually he/she is going to be all tangled up in knots! Foam rolling smooths everything out until that fur baby is comfy and tangle-free.

This is what sets foam rolling apart from stretching. Both can be uncomfortable during the act but leave you feeling better afterwards – like the first time you tried Kama Sutra. However, stretching is more for increasing a muscles range of motion, whereas rolling is working out knots or adhesions, like a massage.

Why Should I Foam Roll?

Obviously, messages are lovely. Foam rolling doesn’t feel quite as good, but the benefits are definitely worth it. The foam rolling stimulus triggers a special stretch response in muscles that cause some reactive relaxation. Simultaneously, this increases blood flow to deliver nutrients and carry out wastes, busts up some scar tissue that’s accumulated from all your hard work’s muscle damage, and enhances mobility and flexibility.

The Best Time To Foam Roll

foam rolling for runners, cyclists, and other endurance athletes

Here’s something probably 50% of people do wrong. They foam roll before they exercise. If this is you, stop it, and thank me later. Foam rolling activates the parasympathetic nervous system – the “rest and digest” nervous system. Should you be relaxing right before a hard workout or amped up ready to crush it?! I’ll take the latter.

Relaxing after a workout, however, sounds spectacular. Really any time after is fine, but if you can roll right after, the muscles will still be warm and malleable.

How Do I Foam Roll?

Doing it right is an important part of any action, but again, so many people make mistakes in the execution. First, pick the right foam roller. For athletes reading this, you’re probably going to want a more firm roller, but if you’ve never rolled before, a soft one will be an appropriate way to learn. You can upgrade later.

Once you have your foam roller, put whichever muscle you want to treat first on the roller and use your bodyweight to create pressure. Roll slowly over the whole length of the muscle or split it up into halves. When you find a knot, pause on it for 20-30 seconds, and then continue slow rolling for 1-2 minutes per muscle.

It’s important that you differentiate between the discomfort of knots and potential injuries! If you’re rolling and rolling and it’s just not getting any better, more rolling is probably not the answer.

The muscles you’re going to want to target the most are the quadriceps (front of the thigh), hip flexors (front of the hips), adductors (groin muscles), gluteus medius (upper side of the butt), gluteus maximus (that big round part), hamstrings (back of the thigh), calves (back of the lower leg), peroneals (side of the lower leg), and anterior tibialis (front of the lower leg just to the side of your shin).

Notice the IT band is absent from the above list. It deserves some special attention because it A) bother a lot of people and B) nobody can seem to fix it. Here are a few suggestions.

IT band
First, make sure you’re rolling the right area! Duh, right? Most people think the IT band is one big muscle going up the side of the leg, but it’s not. It’s mostly connective tissue, and its associated muscle is called the tensor fasciae latae (TFL). This muscle is about halfway between the front and side of your hip – just about where the pocket is on your jeans. The TFL wraps around and joins up with the IT band about one hands length of the way down, so roll it with a slight rotation.

Second, try some glute activation if your IT band keeps bugging you after you’ve tried rolling it. Notice that the glutes and the TFL share the IT band, so it could simply be an imbalance.

Bringing It All Together

Foam rolling is a useful therapeutic tool that can help aid recovery and keep your body happy and healthy. It’s super important to roll slowly and treat knots one-by-one. It’s more important not to cause further aggravation to an already aggravated muscle – foam rolling is not a cure all! The advantages to foam rolling are great, but only if done correctly.