These days, most people are familiar with foam rolling and its many benefits. But how and when to do it is less clear. Some experts advise foam rolling before a workout, and others say after is better. Some say foam rolling before bed is the secret to soothing sore muscles, and others might think morning is better.
But when you factor in the simple truth that most people are limited on time, it’s necessary to optimize our time. So when do you get the most bang for your buck? Well, it depends on the reason you’re foam rolling in the first place.
HOW FOAM ROLLING WORKS
First, let’s clear up some things up about foam rolling in general. “The biggest misconception with foam rolling is that people believe it’s physically breaking up knots and smoothing out tissues,” explains Alina Kennedy, a physical therapist and strength and conditioning coach. Many people imagine it almost like a rolling pin smoothing out dough. Unfortunately that’s not quite how it works.
“Muscles don’t have a brain of their own, so they can’t choose to contract or relax without being told to by the nerves that connect to them,” Kennedy points out. “Think of muscles as puppets and the central nervous system as the puppet master. Unless the central nervous system leads the change, nothing happens to muscles.
“Luckily, foam rolling actually has a direct impact on the central nervous system,” she says. “Applying pressure onto a stressed muscle sends a message to the brain that the muscle is safe and it’s OK to relax.” That’s why you don’t want to go too hard when you’re foam rolling, otherwise it could have the opposite effect.
With this in mind, here’s what you need to know about the timing of foam rolling relative to your specific needs.
“For most people, foam rolling is best before a workout,” Kennedy says. This is especially true if you’re weightlifting, running, biking or any other sport where moving well is essential. “Spending 10 minutes foam rolling before a workout will relax tense muscles, bring blood to the muscles you’re about to use and improve your mobility.”
Second, foam rolling, combined with stretching, has been shown to be one of the most effective ways of increasing flexibility in tight muscles, according to Kyle Stull, a chiropractor, senior manager of program design for TriggerPoint and a strength and conditioning coach. “Muscles often become short and overactive after we sit at a desk for long periods or from doing any repetitive movements. If these short muscles aren’t restored to their normal length before a workout, then they can stress tissues and even pull joints out of optimal alignment. Foam rolling helps reduce the activity of these muscles, which allows them to stretch better and may prevent the excessive stress and tension on surrounding areas.”
If you sit all day at work and/or practice a sport that requires optimal movement, foam rolling before working out is your best bet.
If sore muscles are a concern and you’re able to foam roll before and after your workout, consider doing both. “Everyone knows they should ‘cool down’ after a workout, but not everyone knows what this means,” Stull points out. “Cooling down does help to slowly return the body back to its pre-exercise physiological state, but it does not always help to reduce soreness. Muscle soreness is caused by small micro tears in the muscle tissue and an accumulation of waste product.”
Waste molecules are produced when muscles contract (which is what happens when you exercise), and normally your body clears them on its own. But when muscles contract repeatedly, like during an intense workout, your body isn’t able to flush them out as efficiently, which, in turn, creates soreness. “The direct compression from the roller and the rolling action helps to encourage and push these molecules out of the tissue, which allows nutrient-rich oxygen to return and initiates the recovery process sooner,” Stull explains. In other words, foam rolling can speed up that process of flushing the waste product out of your muscles.
Remember those short and overactive muscles we discussed rolling before a workout? Those could also use some love after a workout. “These muscles often have a tendency to quickly return to their shortened and overactive state, especially when performing physical activity,” Stull notes. Therefore, spending 5–10 minutes rolling them out and stretching can help them calm down again.
One thing that’s key to understand about foam rolling is it can be used for a targeted purpose (like warming the body up for movement), but it can also be done just because it feels good. Either way, before bed might be a time when you want to consider foam rolling.
“When rolling to improve movement patterns, the frequency of rolling matters — a lot,” Stull says. “In many cases, I recommend people to roll specific muscles 3–4 times per day.”
Plus, many people love rolling and feel very relaxed afterward, which makes it an ideal addition to any nighttime routine. “This makes sense because, if you’re rolling correctly, then you’re breathing, relaxing and using a roller that is slightly uncomfortable but not painful,” Stull says. “When you combine rolling, relaxing and concentrating on your breath, it is a perfect pre-sleep recipe for many people.”
Foam rolling is also a great activity on days when you’re taking a break from the gym, but it’s best to time it strategically. “On days when you’re not exercising (or if you can’t exercise because of injury), foam rolling is best to do when you’re warm and relaxed,” Kennedy says. “Straight after a shower or bath is perfect. Warm muscles relax easier so you’ll get far less resistance and discomfort while foam rolling, which is an amazing advantage!”