Here's What Foam Rolling Is Actually Doing When It Hurts So Good
Roll through the pain. We’ve all done it—in that it “hurts so bad I want to stop, but I know if I stop I’ll regret it” sort of way. Maybe before a run, after a particularly grueling lifting session, or on our recovery days. We will roll our muscles into submission, we think.
Why? Well, because we’re supposed to, and something about fascia. And adhesions. And tight muscles. Yeah, that’s right…right?
The thing is, most of us who diligently foam roll do so because we’ve been told we should. Maybe you even notice that your muscles seem to feel better when you do, so you keep at it, because why not? But have you ever stopped to ask what foam rolling is actually doing and whether it actually works the way you think it might?
To help you figure out what’s really going on when you cringe in delight, we combed through scientific journals and talked to some of the world’s leading foam-rolling experts. Here’s what you need to know about the popular warm-up and recovery tactic.
The benefits of foam rolling could range from warming up your muscles to actually helping you recover faster after a workout.
Right now, the limited research that’s out there suggests that foam rolling may be able to do most of what you hope—like warm up your body for a workout, help you recover from one, or just loosen tight, achy muscles, Pablo B. Costa, Ph.D., associate professor of kinesiology at California State University, Fullerton, and research committee member for the National Strength and Conditioning Association, tells SELF.
For example, a small, 16-person 2018 study from the University of Stirling in the UK found that after foam rolling, it took less effort for a muscle to produce a given amount of force. Its findings bolster previous (again, pretty small) studies in which people reported that they felt less fatigued when they foam rolled as part of their warm-up.
Meanwhile, an eight-person study in the Journal of Athletic Training suggests that foam rolling after a workout can help reduce delayed-onset muscle soreness, and therefore boost your performance in later workouts. After all, a lot of times, what slashes your performance during one workout is the fact that your muscles are still sore from your last one, Polly de Mille, R.N., C.S.C.S., director of performance services at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, tells SELF.
And a comprehensive review published in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy concluded that foam rolling promotes short-term increases in range of motion. According to de Mille, research consistently shows that foam rolling can increase muscle flexibility, which means you feel less tight and probably perform your workouts with better, more efficient, and safer form.
As you’ve probably noticed, these are all really small studies—and Lewis J. Macgregor, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist and lead author of the University of Stirling study, explains that despite the fact that most physical therapists, exercise physiologists, and fitnesstrainers fervently suggest foam rolling, when it comes to nailing down the benefits, we just aren’t there yet. “It is hard to say why scientific evidence is lagging behind popularity,” Macgregor says. “I suppose it is just the usual case that it takes a long time to build up the level of research that is needed to provide solid evidence on any technique or intervention.”
Translation: It takes a long time and requires many different steps to arrive at conclusions and recommendations that can be generalized widely. Still, foam rolling is a go-to recommendation for warming up before a workout, improving mobility, and helping with soreness, thanks to what professionals have observed it can do in clinical settings.
So how does foam rolling actually work? Short answer: We don’t really know. Long answer: We do have some (pretty good) theories.
The leading one is focused on myofascial release. But what is fascia—and why would you want to “release” it? “Think of fascia as the sausage casing surrounding every muscle fiber, every organ, every nerve fiber, every bone in the human body,” de Mille, says. The analogy isn’t that far off. Have you ever noticed a thin, almost see-through layer of tissue coating your chicken breasts? That’s fascia, de Mille says.
Within the muscle, this fascia exists in multiple layers. First, it wraps around every individual muscle fiber or cell. Then, it wraps around bundles of muscle fibers, called fasciculi. Lastly, it wraps around the entire muscle body. Together, these layers of fascia, apart from helping to give muscle its shape, attach to tendons and bones to help you pull, push, squat, run, bike, whatever it is you want to do.
The thing is, all on its own, muscle fascia is pretty solid and not very pliable, Costa says. That could theoretically limit range of motion, or give you that feeling of stiff, tight muscles.
That’s especially true if the fibers that make up your muscle fascia form what’s called “adhesions” or “trigger points,” de Mille says. “Ideally, all of these fibers are sliding by each other with ease as you move, like silky hair, but sometimes these fibers can get like hairthat got some ice cream in it and it’s all stuck together.” Experts say that these tangles in fascia can form for a variety of reasons such as muscle injury, inactivity, disease, inflammation, or trauma. For whatever reason, “the tissue binds to each other, loses elasticity, and forms taut bands of tissue that can be painful,” de Mille says. Myofascial release may help separate these fibers and re-establish the integrity of the tissue.
“Muscle fascia displays a thixotropic [science speak for “shake the ketchup bottle to make it liquidy”] behavior, where, when it is moved it becomes more compliant and malleable,” he says. So, he explains, applying pressure and moving the fascia, even microscopically, could allow the fascia, and therefore the muscles, to separate, relax, and become more flexible.
Meanwhile, foam rolling could also improve your workouts by literally warming your muscles. “The friction induced by foam rolling on targeted muscles might also help to increase temperature of the fascia and muscles,” Costa says. Warming up your musclesbefore exercise helps loosen up the tissues and joints and increase range of motion—which helps you move better during your workout and protect you from injury.
Post-workout, increasing blood flow to the tissues you just used can help speed up recovery time, Dan Giordano, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., co-founder of Bespoke Treatments Physical Therapy, tells SELF. In fact, it’s one of the best ways to help minimize that lingering post-workout soreness known as delayed-onset muscle soreness, or DOMS.
However, Macgregor argues that foam rolling isn’t about myofascial release at all, but instead neurological changes within the muscles themselves. “It seems more likely that, when we foam roll, imbedded nerve receptors are being stimulated in that region, rather than any structural alterations occurring,” he says. “This can still lead to a perceived 'releasing' effect, which is the feeling that people seek when they foam roll.” While he says scientists can still only speculate about the exact mechanisms, it’s possible that foam rolling triggers receptors that talk to the brain, and the brain responds by instructing the muscle cells to more or less loosen the heck up.
de Mille, who believes it’s likely that foam rolling benefits come from myofascial release plus neurological changes working together, adds that foam rolling may work by helping to tell your nervous system to reduce pain signals from the muscle. (That’s the idea behind the popular TheraGun and other similar self-massage tools.)
And that brings us to the hurts-so-good pain that is foam rolling, the explanation for which is actually pretty simple.
“When you apply pressure to these hardened bands of tissue, you stimulate the pain receptors that are compressed within them,” de Mille says. But here’s the thing. She says foam rolling shouldn’t hurt—and that’s a sentiment echoed by Costa and Macgregor, too. “Muscle soreness from exercise will feel more pronounced if you apply pressure to the tender area, but foam rolling itself shouldn't really hurt at all,” Macgregor says. “I think that it's dangerous to assume that if foam rolling is painful, that that means it's ‘working.’”
If it is painful, a few things could be going on. You could be pressing too hard (likely) and actually causing damage (relatively unlikely), have some existing severe muscle damage or injury (pretty darn unlikely, but get checked out by a doctor if you suspect you’re really hurt), or are rolling tissues you shouldn’t be (extremely likely), Costa says. In general, if you experience pain that is sudden, sharp, or doesn’t start improving after a few days, it could be a sign you’re actually injured and should check in with a doctor.
For example, he and de Mille explain that people love to climb on a foam roller to roll out their IT band, which runs up the side of the thigh from the knee to hip, and is super sensitive to foam rolling. But the pain you feel when rolling the band is actually your body begging you to stop.
“The IT band is just a big, long, band of connective tissue, so rolling it won’t necessarily ‘release’ it,” de Mille says.
Giordano echoes that you should never roll your IT band. Mostly, because it’s a waste of time and probably not getting at the root of the problem. “If you’re having IT issues, it’s probably coming from your hip,” Giordano says. He suggests foam rolling at the hip instead, and working some hip exercises into your routine to “start to stabilize the hip and take pressure off the IT band.”
The best way to reap the benefits is to roll regularly, and to focus on just your muscles.
Always, always, always stick to rolling your muscles, rather than ligaments like your IT band or joints like your knees or elbows, de Mille says. You should also skip your lower back, Giordano says. “If you foam roll your lower back, it could cause the muscles surrounding [the vertebrae] to go into spasm,” he says. “The risk really outweighs the potential reward” since this part of your spine is pretty nonmobile anyway.
Stick to your glutes, quads, hamstrings, calves, traps, and lats. You can lightly roll the meat of your shoulders, but should avoid the actual joint. Same with your arms and elbows. For best results, de Mille suggests adhering to a near-daily rolling strategy. After all, just like all things exercise, you have to be consistent to get the best results. Macgregor similarly notes that the effects of foam rolling seem to be short-lived, so rolling today won’t necessarily help you next week. Aim to roll before and after workouts, or just any time you’re feeling tight.
Giordano suggests spending 30 seconds on each spot you want to roll. If you have more time to dedicate to it, Costa suggests doing three sets of 30 seconds, with 10 seconds of rest in between, on each muscle group you’re trying to target. During those bouts, de Mille recommends dividing the muscle that you’re rolling into three segments—bottom, middle, and top. Give each section a few passes, move onto the next one, and then after having hit each of them, polish things off by giving the entire length of your muscle some more love.
At the end of the day, remember that just like any other workout recovery method, foam rolling should be used as a tool to help you feel better during and after workouts. That means that you can and should tweak your rolling habits to whatever works best for you. So don’t stress about sticking to a strict schedule—start with rolling when you feel like you need it or simply when you have time, and take it from there depending on what feels right.
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