You’ve probably seen people foam rolling at the gym or heard someone talk about the benefits.
Foam rolling is a good way to relieve muscle tension and work out knots in your muscles. It can replicate the effects of a deep tissue massage if you do it the right way.
“The biggest mistake I see is people using foam rolling in place of stretching,” said Genavieve Mirr, a Marshfield Clinic athletic trainer. “Foam rolling doesn’t lengthen your muscles like stretching does.”
Rolling is best used in addition to stretching to relieve muscle soreness.
Tips for rolling the right way
Start by choosing a softer foam roller with a flat surface. Dense or textured foam rollers are made to exert more pressure per square inch and can be too intense for someone who has never foam rolled.
Know the location of the muscle you’re rolling. The most effective way to foam roll is over the entire length of the muscle, so it’s important to know where it ends and begins. Pause once for 10-30 seconds on knots that you feel in your muscle, then roll slowly over the rest of the muscle. You only need to pass over the whole muscle a few times to release tension. Rolling over the muscle quickly or dozens of times doesn’t provide any added benefit.
“As with stretching, you can foam roll before or after exercise,” Mirr said. “You can choose to foam roll before or after stretching.”
She recommends limiting rolling to your lower extremities. The hamstrings, quadriceps and calves are larger muscles suitable for foam rolling. Avoid rolling over joints and bony areas.
Don’t foam roll if you have a recent muscle injury that hasn’t healed. Stop rolling if it causes pain. Some discomfort is normal, but it shouldn’t feel painful.
Skip foam rolling on your back
Mirr doesn’t recommend foam rolling your back because the roller can cause pain or injury passing over the small bones in your spine. The roller also isn’t very good at targeting the small muscles in your lower back.
“You’re better off with something smaller like a tennis ball if you’re looking to release tension in your upper back,” Mirr said. “You can roll the tense area against a wall or have a friend do it for you.”