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Foam rolling - The poor person's massage

Personal training with a foam roller
Lift Studios Ltd - Foam rolling or sports massage

The poor person's massage and its uses.

The focus of this article is to identify if we as a team can provide you with a solution (foam rolling and other tools) to increase your performance and recovery without paying Luke or Mark (our two massage therapists) a small mortgage to get hands-on with you.

The foam roller is a concept that came about in the 1920s from Moshe Feldenkrais. A physicist and martial artist, Moshe used the concept sort his own pain out and improve athletic performance.

Foam rolling was popularised on the gym floors in the early 90s. The idea behind it then was that it helped with myofascial release.

Fascia being a cling film-like substance that wraps our muscles and organs, providing support and reducing the friction caused by everyday movements. Myofascial release would then mobilise the fascial system to allow for the body to function in a more optimal state, typically associated with less pain being present.

It is no secret that the foam roller has now become a part of the majority of coaches and gym-goers training tools to improve the rate of recovery (2). So to provide you with a few ideas of what and when to do, here are some points that might provide some clarity:

What it doesn’t do?

Lengthen/loosen the IT band when rolling directly onto it

The iliotibial tract is a thick band of fascia that runs on the lateral side of the thigh from the iliac crest and inserts at the knee.

The IT (Iliotibial) Band holds an important place in the structure of the leg and hip, and what it needs to be is strong and tight, not weak and loose.

Further, from a completely anecdotal standpoint, we have friends that are orthopedic surgeons that have told us that to cut the IT band with a scalpel can be difficult, so to think you can change the formation of it by deep rolling on it might not be the best solution.

However, what you can roll to reduce the tightness you feel in the IT band and/or symptoms often associated with tightness in that area is to treat the tissues that connect to it, like the Tensor Fasciae Latae and Gluteus Maximus.

What it does and might do?

Increases blood flow to muscles

Muscle tissues need a supply of oxygen to stay alive. Blood flow carries more oxygen to the muscles, thus keeping the muscle alive. In most cases, stiff muscles are usually that way because they have fallen into a state of ischemia, and that’s either down to damage to that area, dysfunction, or lack of use. Here’s a great saying for you “you don’t stop moving because you got old, you got old because you stopped moving”

Clear the gunk and reduce the pain

Foam rolling after a training session has been shown to have a positive effect on transporting nutrients to the muscle and clearing waste products (4). Less DOMs (the muscle soreness we often feel following a brutal or new workout) have been associated with foam rolling in between sessions. Obviously a great thing, no one likes sitting on the toilet pain, do they?! (1,3).

How to apply foam rolling to your workout routine.

Roll Smart

The aim of foam rolling should not be to beat yourself up on the roller but to provide life to the muscles and fascial system. To achieve this, a better approach would be to gently roll on the muscle to facilitate hydration, not obliteration. As mentioned on the ‘tolerance and tougher rollers’ work on a pain scale, of a low to moderate threshold because the body providing you with information, so listen to it.

Do not rollover:

- Over a joint

- The lumbar spine

- A spot that gives you referred pain

- Your eyeball

With greater tolerance comes tougher rollers.

What you don’t need to do when foam rolling is to chase the pain. If you just smiled, this is probably you. Your aim when foam rolling is to elicit the right dose-response relationship to get the most out of it. Going hard and/or too long on the foam roller may cause your recovery between training sessions to be delayed because of the body's response to pain. Pain causes a heightened sympathetic response in the central nervous system, typically related to the fight or flight, being the complete opposite to what we want. So in order for you to get this response, an idea would be to work on a subjective pain scale (1-10. 1 being no pain at all, and 10 being completely unbearable). The maximum amount of pain you should be aiming for should be no more than a 5/10, and if you get this level of pain from a soft roller, you do NOT need to be playing with the tougher foam rollers in the corner. You can work up to those in due time.

Before a workout:

To get maximal gains from your workout, you need to make a list of priorities in terms of what your desired outcome from the session is. If you are low on time, foam rolling should probably go way down in that list, and you should focus on a few warm sets for the resistance training. If you do have a bit more time, and you have identified some areas of dysfunction in your movement and have pain with it, then the foam rolling of those particular areas should move up in the list priorities, focusing on 1-2 techniques with some active stretching you can do to relieve those specific areas. Spend no more than 30-60s on each movement. To make sure you are getting the most out of those techniques, you should practice testing and retesting.

After a workout:

The focus after completing a workout is recovery. In order to optimise recovery you need to be able to fall into a parasympathetic state, the opposite state to the fight or flight we spoke about earlier in the article. You can achieve this by dedicating the last 10 minutes of your training session to foam rolling and stretching the larger muscle groups that were used in the training session and using some deep, diaphragmic breathing techniques (5).

Days off

We would recommend using the same principles as ‘after your workout’ focusing on the large muscle groups. Particularly, if there are some tighter and more sore areas, you can combine some foam rolling with some light stretching and mobility work to get the most out of it (6).

To conclude

The evidence surrounding foam rolling is mostly inconclusive, pointing loosely towards short term benefits.

However, foam rolling has become very popular in training environments and at homes, so it is not something that will disappear anytime time soon. Furthermore, there does not seem to be any negative effects of using the foam roller. When considering the positive psychological effect that users report, why wouldn’t you.

Foam rolling when paired with other forms of mobility enhancement such as stretching, corrective exercise, activation, and foundational movement pattern development has shown to have the most positive effects when the aim is to improve overall mobility.

At LIFT, we use it for coaching and on ourselves just because we feel like it works. As a team of coaches, we like to pride ourselves on being evidence-led and if you’ve done it yourself, you will know what we mean by it working. There’s something about the slight discomfort of it after a session and feeling like you’ve done something to improve your recovery state. There’s a lot of things that we do as humans and as coaches that work and aren’t really sure as to why.

If you have any questions, please comment below.

Thanks, Luke.


1. Adamczyk, J., Gryko, K. and Boguszewski, D., 2020. Does the type of foam roller influence the recovery rate, thermal response and DOMS prevention?.

2. Heiss, R., Lutter, C., Freiwald, J., Hoppe, M., Grim, C., Poettgen, K., Forst, R., Bloch, W., Hüttel, M. and Hotfiel, T., 2019. Advances in Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) – Part II: Treatment and Prevention. Sportverletzung · Sportschaden, 33(01), pp.21-29.

3. Hotfiel, T., Mayer, I., Huettel, M., Hoppe, M., Engelhardt, M., Lutter, C., Pöttgen, K., Heiss, R., Kastner, T. and Grim, C., 2019. Accelerating Recovery from Exercise-Induced Muscle Injuries in Triathletes: Considerations for Olympic Distance Races. Sports, 7(6), p.143.

4. Kalén, A., Pérez-Ferreirós, A., Barcala-Furelos, R., Fernández-Méndez, M., Padrón-Cabo, A., Prieto, J., Ríos-Ave, A. and Abelairas-Gómez, C., 2017. How can lifeguards recover better? A cross-over study comparing resting, running, and foam rolling. The American Journal of Emergency Medicine, 35(12), pp.1887-1891.

5. Pearcey, G., Bradbury-Squires, D., Kawamoto, J., Drinkwater, E., Behm, D. and Button, D., 2015. Foam Rolling for Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness and Recovery of Dynamic Performance Measures. Journal of Athletic Training, 50(1), pp.5-13.

6. Schroeder, A. and Best, T., 2015. Is Self Myofascial Release an Effective Preexercise and Recovery Strategy? A Literature Review. Current Sports Medicine Reports, 14(3), pp.200-208.

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