A guide to using a foam roller

I get asked many questions about the use of foam rolling; when to do it, when not to do it, what type of roller is best, to list but a few. This brief guide will help you better understand all things foam rolling and hopefully, assist you in performing foam rolling exercises.

What does foam rolling work for?

Flexibility: Foam rolling can improve your flexibility and range of motion.  Whilst there is some evidence that passive stretching can have some negative effect on how your muscles function afterwards, this does not seem to be the case for foam rolling. This is important because it makes it safe to use shortly before you compete.

Unfortunately, the effects do not seem to last for very long, about 10 minutes. This means that you may have to combine foam rolling with other techniques if you want to have a more lasting effect on your flexibility.

To determine if foam rolling is as effective as an active warm-up (cycling) at improving hamstring flexibility, a group of researchers from France designed a study to test this hypothesis. The researchers found that combining the cycling and foam rolling produced the best results. Foam rolling on its own was not as effective as cycling on its own, but when they combined the two they saw a large increase in range of motion that lasted more than 30 minutes.

Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness (DOMS), also known as exercise induced muscle soreness. There is good evidence (ref, ref) to show that foam rolling can decrease the muscle soreness that you feel after exercise, similar to the benefit of a massage. Developing the habit of using a foam roller after hard training sessions or races could elicit some good improvement to your recovery.

Performance. Currently, there is no evidence to show that foam rolling does not have any direct effect on athletic performance. However, with foam rolling contributing to improved recovery post training or competing , it might have some indirect, positive effect on performance.

Why is foam rolling sometimes not effective?

 Injury. You should avoid foam rolling over injuries that are less than 2 weeks old. At this point the new tissues growing at the Injury site are weak and you risk making it worse if you apply strong pressure to the area.

You will likely find that the muscle tightness associated with the injury slowly disappears by itself as your injury recovers.

Fatigue. Muscles that are fatigued and overworked will feel tight and sore and no amount of massage or foam rolling will get rid of it. What it needs is rest and time to recover.

Common training errors contributing to this include training too often, suddenly increasing your training load or intensity, with insufficient recovery between sessions. Also switching to different training surfaces e.g. Astro turf or running across country instead of the roads.

Neural tension. Our nervous system is continuous from our brains to the tips of our toes and fingers and it should slide freely as we move. If for some reason a nerve gets stuck, it will stretch rather than slide. When this happens we refer to it as increased neural tension.

Get yourself checked out by a GP or, better still, a good sports doctor or Sports and Exercise Therapist if you struggle with persistent muscle tightness that does not react to foam rolling or stretching. This is something that we can easily check via video call if you wanted to contact us via www.cksportsinjury.co.uk

How to foam roll for best effect

These guidelines derive from the protocols that the researchers have used in their studies, which I have combined with my own clinical experience. Research continues in the best way to foam roller to a gold standard. To this end, use this guidance to best effect for yourself but improvise and find the method that works best for you.

Which type of foam roller should you use?

The rollers come in different sizes and with different surface textures and ‘treads’. A firm roller works best. You won’t be able to exert enough pressure if it is too soft. The smooth rollers have been most commonly used by researchers in their studies, but this does not mean that the spiky ones or ‘tractor tyre tread ones are not effective.

Where NOT to roll

Avoid strong pressure over bony points as you’ll likely just bruise your tendons.

Do not roll across joints e.g. the back of the knee.


Pressure should be firm but not painful and you should not bruise yourself. When massaging, the best results are often obtained when applying pressure that can be described as being “comfortably uncomfortable” or “uncomfortable but not painful”.

Foam rolling and massage are thought to work mainly by calming the nervous system down and thereby decreasing muscle tone. If you are too aggressive (even without bruising), you’ll get the opposite effect because you will tense up against the pain.

Movement and Duration

I would suggest that you use two types of movements when massaging yourself:

  1. Long strokes that cover the whole length of the muscle. This is the method that they tend to use in the research studies. Spend about 1 to 2 minutes per muscle.
  2. Sustaining pressure on painful spots. I actually find massage balls can be more effective for this as it’s easier to apply pressure to a specific point with them. Sustain the pressure for about 30 to 60 seconds before moving on to the next spot; this is aligned to the Self Myofascial Release (SMR) technique.


Research evidence supports the hypothesis that foam rolling is a positive augmentation to your training.  The evidence does not yet show a direct positive impact on any athletic performance, however, the indirect effect of improving the recovery following a hard training session or event may contribute to being better prepared for the next training session.

I will publish another article regarding the foam rollers in a blog about Self Myofascial Release (SMR) which has been shown to help improve flexibility.

Aside from being injured or excessively fatigued, foam rolling can be a useful addition to your training and pre/post competition programme.

Check out our YouTube videos for foam rolling for different muscles.

If you would like to contact us for more information about foam rolling, or to make an appointment with us, please call us on 077 863 34567, or email us at info@cksportsinjury.co.uk.




Recent Posts