At gyms all over the world, athletes can be found grunting and making pain faces as they aggressively grind out various sore body parts on foam rollers. Their thinking behind this self-administered, sometimes painful, myofascial release (SMR) technique is:
- “It will help with recovery.”
- “It will make me less sore tomorrow.”
- “It will prevent DOMS.”
Sorry to disappoint: Foam rolling your quads after doing 100 loaded squats will probably do diddly squat when it comes to the muscle soreness you’ll most likely feel in the next 48 hours.
That being said, this doesn’t mean foam rollers don’t have their place in our lives.“They just don’t work the way you think they work,” explained veteran strength coach Garth Cooke, the owner of Forge Valley Fitness in Vernon, British Columbia, and a former Canadian national team rugby player.
“Foam rolling is like a massage. It’s good for flushing out the lymphatic system and can relax your muscles a little bit, but in terms of the muscle damage you do (from working out), it won’t do anything for that,” he explained.
Don’t Roll Your IT Bands
What about my IT bands? Isn’t foam rolling good for them?
Many people, especially those who spend a lot of time running, have notoriously tight IT bands. This often results in knee pain. Because the IT band—the tendon that runs down the length of the outer thigh from the top of the pelvis to the shin bone—is difficult to stretch the way we stretch the muscles in our bodies, foam rolling has often been seen as a good alternative.
But there’s plenty of evidence now that foam rolling your IT only exacerbates the problem, especially if the pain you’re feeling actually stems from your glutes not firing properly. Do your research when it comes to using your roller.
When Should You Roll?
So what then is foam rolling good for?
Foam rolling is a little bit like eating chicken noodle soup when you’re sick: It’s not what’s going to heal your flu or cold, but it will give you some temporary relief and comfort as your body is fighting off the illness.
Two times foam rolling is useful, for short term comfort, that is:
1. To help you get into better positions
Let’s say you’re working on your strict press and your shoulders and pecs are feeling tight. Foam rolling your lats, for example, before you lift, or between sets, can help relax your shoulder blades so you can get into a better, anatomically safer overhead position during your press, Cooke explained.
“But foam rolling before a heavy squat session isn’t always the best choice,” he said. This is because foam rolling will relax your muscles and you don’t want that before heavy lifting. Instead, you want to make sure you can build as much tension in your body as possible, he said.
That being said, a 2018 study on foam rolling published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning did find that foam rolling your hamstrings may be beneficial in creating more range of motion without affecting muscle activation. But more research needs to be done.
2. To alleviate pain
If you have ever slipped a rib in your back, you’re probably familiar with that sharp pain that even hurts when you breathe, and the ensuing muscle tightness that goes along with it. You want relief right now, right?
Foam rolling—or a more acute acupressure type of rolling with an acupressure ball or a lacrosse ball—can help alleviate the pain (temporarily). It won’t, however, fix the injury long-term. Or let’s say your knee is a bit sore and feels restricted. Foam rolling your quads, hamstrings, and hip flexors might help decrease your perception of pain or discomfort and ultimately tell your body to calm down a bit so you can have a less painful workout.
Cooke recommends foam rolling before bed if you have chronic pain or tightness, or an acute injury, to help alleviate the pain before you try to get a good night’s rest.
The take-home: Foam rolling is useful for helping you in today’s workout in some cases, but it’s not going to fix injuries or reduce DOMs, nor will it keep your body moving well and pain-free long-term.