Posted On:
Tuesday, March 12, 2024
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Coach Tip Tuesday: Demystifying Foam Rolling

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If you’ve been an athlete for any length of time, you have likely observed people foam rolling.  You have probably seen them lying on the ground contouring their bodies into odd positions while crushing other parts of their body with a large foam cylinder.  Maybe you’ve even seen them grimace in discomfort or pain as they’re doing it.  But why do they do it?  It seems completely unreasonable.  How could lying down on the floor and subjecting your body to sensations via a dense foam cylinder that range from uncomfortable to breath-catching pain be good for you, much less something you do willingly?

What is Foam Rolling?

Foam Rolling is the common name for Self-Myofascial Release (SMR); it is also known as Tool-Assisted Self Manual Therapy (TASMT). All of these terms refer to the same thing: a flexibility technique that focuses on the neural, muscular, and fascial systems in the body. When gentle force is applied to adhesions (colloquially known as “knots” and also referred to as “trigger points”) in the body’s soft tissues, the elastic soft tissues are altered from a bunched up position into a straighter alignment. Specifically, the alignment changes to be in line with that of the muscle or the fascia. (Think of adhesions as a ball of tangled yarn that is being disentangled and straightened out.)

Fascia is a spider-like web of white connective tissue that wraps and surrounds muscle fibers, bones, nerves, and blood vessels.  The Myofascial System encompasses the individual muscles as well connecting groups of larger muscles together.  All fasciae are connected; a common way to visualize fasciae is to think of it as a skinsuit that envelops your entire body.  When fascia is in a healthy state, it is supple, soft, and free-moving; it basically glides easily.  Repetitive movement, load, and trauma - whether it comes from activities of daily living, training, or both - can cause fascia to change to be tight and unyielding, and adhesions can be created in both the fasciae and the muscles.  

When fascia and/or muscles are tight and restricted, they cannot move freely through their complete ranges of motion.  When we cannot move freely through our complete ranges of motion, the risk and probability of injury rises.  As I’ve talked about before, it also can compromise the adaptations that athletes get from their workouts, which means that they may see a lack of progress or results.

Foam rolling, self-myofascial release, and tool-assisted self manual therapy use tools - such as a foam roller, trigger point ball, or specially designed tools - to apply pressure and work on a tight or restricted area in the body’s soft tissues.  In combination with your body’s own weight, these tools provide appropriate pressure to cue the body’s tissues to relax and alter their positions on a cellular level.

How Does Foam Rolling Work?

Foam rolling can help return the fasciae and muscles to their healthy state.  This is accomplished via a relaxation response (the fancy name for this response/process is the Autogenic Inhibition Response) that occurs in response to the application of gentle force to the body’s soft tissues.  This relaxation response occurs because of Golgi Tendon Organs; in fact, the principle of how foam rolling works is actually exactly the same as why stretching is beneficial.

Golgi Tendon Organs are components of the body’s Central Nervous System.  They are located at the musculotendinous junction (aka where a muscle connects to a tendon; tendons connect muscles to our bones).  Golgi Tendon Organs measure the amount and rate of pressure and tension that develops within a muscle.  When pressure is applied to a muscle, that muscle’s Golgi Tendon Organs will cause the muscle to relax as a safety response.  Golgi Tendon Organs are constantly monitoring muscular contraction and tension, and they will signal a muscle to relax after approximately 30 seconds of applied pressure to the muscle.  

It is at this point - once the Golgi Tendon Organ has signaled the muscle to relax - that foam rolling becomes effective, as this point is when the adhesion in the muscle or fascia will be altered and gradually return to a more normal state.  Since this process takes 30 seconds, we must apply static pressure to the adhesion/soft tissue for at least 30 seconds; we must allow time for the Golgi Tendon Organ to inhibit the muscle.

All too often, people will roll back and forth rather mindlessly on foam rollers or other assistive devices.  While this can feel good and have some benefits, the true power of foam rolling comes from applying pressure for long enough in a static position to inhibit the muscle and get it to return to its healthy state on a cellular level.  This - helping the body’s tissues alter how they are configured and helping them to maintain a healthy configuration - is how foam rolling can have long-term benefits.

Foam Rolling Best Practices

There are several things that you can do in order to get the most benefit out of the time you spend foam rolling: take your time, breathe deeply, and make it a daily habit.

Take Your Time

Just as it is for its cousin, stretching, it is important to take your time when you foam roll.  Be sure to explore the muscle/area that you are working on and seek out tight and restricted parts.  (Calling “foam rolling” foam rolling is honestly a bit of a misnomer, as the name implies that the rolling is the main thing we are seeking from this technique.  But that’s not true; the “rolling” in “foam rolling” is called such because of the process where you are literally rolling your body on the tool you’re using to seek out tight and restricted parts.)  When you discover a tight or restricted area (which will usually be felt as at least discomfort and sometimes sharp pain), spend time focusing on it.  Hold your position on the tool that you are using for at least 30 secondsDo not just mindlessly roll back and forth over the area.

When people do find a restricted area, their instinct is often to “knead” the tissue (aka roll back and forth).  This isn’t the correct method.  The first step to altering the restriction or adhesion is to hold a static position with no movement over the area.  Remember: We’re seeking to “calm down” the muscle so it can return to a healthier alignment and state.  Rolling fast excites the muscle, and therefore has the opposite effect from what we’re intending to accomplish by foam rolling.

It’s beneficial to spend at least two minutes on each muscle group that you are foam rolling.  That being said, if you are foam rolling right before a workout or race, it’s best to avoid heavy or prolonged foam rolling.  Post-workout or race, you can increase the intensity and duration.  As a bonus, there is some evidence that foam rolling after an event or race can help prevent Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS).  Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness is a sensation familiar to almost everyone; it is muscle tenderness and pain that begins after you’ve exercised.  It usually takes 12-24 hours after a workout for DOMS to start.

Breathe Deeply

Once you find a tight or restricted area while you are foam rolling, breathe deeply while you hold your position on that area of tightness.  Nasal breathing is preferable to mouth breathing for this process.  Inhale for a 5-second count, pause for a 1-second count, and exhale for a 5-second count.  If you find that you are struggling to breathe deeply as you hold your position, back off slightly on the intensity and pressure that you are applying until you can breathe deeply.  As the intensity reduces, you can apply more pressure.  

Breathing deeply throughout this process does a few things, but one of the most important things that it does is help to ensure that you don’t tense up when you find an area of discomfort.  Tensing up can have the opposite effect of what we’re intending to do, which is to calm down the muscle so it can return to a healthier alignment and state.

Make it a Daily Habit

Also like stretching, foam rolling is most effective when it is done as part of a daily routine.  Consistency is key, and foam rolling often is the way to see tangible results from this activity.  You don’t need to carve a single, longer block of time to foam roll; you can sprinkle in mini sessions throughout the day.  The consistency and frequency of the activity is what is most important and what will help you feel benefits in both the short- and long-term.

Is Foam Rolling Pseudoscience?

There are a lot of people who are not convinced that foam rolling can provide any true benefits.  Conversely, there are people out there on the other side of the spectrum that swear that foam rolling is the solution to all problems.  Skeptics of foam rolling argue that using a foam roller (or any other tool that assists with myofascial release) cannot have any physical effect or therapeutic benefit on the fascia because it is an inert structure.  Inert Structures in the body are those structures that cannot shorten or elongate in length; examples include ligaments, capsules, bursae, cartilage, and nerve sheaths.  The most common example of an inert structure that skeptics of foam rolling point out is the iliotibial band (ITB), which is a strong, thick band of tissue that runs from your hip bone to your shin bone on the outside of your thigh.

Like so many things in life, the truth probably doesn’t lie in either of these extreme viewpoints; instead, the truth most likely lies somewhere in the middle.  Foam rolling isn’t a magical cure-all, and it’s also not completely ineffective and useless.  My 15+ years experience in the endurance sports world has shown me that while individual responses do vary (as they do for practically everything - in life and in endurance sports), foam rolling and other fascial techniques work far more often than they do not work.  The majority of athletes who I’ve coached who have tried fascial release have a positive response.  

This being said, there isn’t necessarily a lot of literature out there about why this is actually true from a scientific perspective.  However, my perspective is that I don’t really care if we can’t fully explain why it helps people.  If it does help a majority of people and helps them feel and perform better, then that is a good thing in my book.

Even though we don’t necessarily have all of the answers, we do have a lot of educated hypotheses about why foam rolling works.  It likely boils down to a few things: fascial manipulation, pain modification, and muscular release.  Fascial manipulation is the process described above where we try to break up adhesions in the fascia and muscles by rolling on them and finding areas of restriction.  As we do this, this likely alters the water content of the tissues that we’re working on.  It is well-known that the body’s soft tissues need to be sufficiently hydrated with an appropriate water content in order to function optimally.

Because foam rolling is often at least an uncomfortable process (and often painful) to inflict on yourself, it can modify how you perceive pain and your overall levels of perceived pain.  Simply put, you may think something else or a different experience is less painful once you’ve subjected yourself to discomfort and pain via foam rolling.  Since muscle groups are located adjacent to other muscle groups and integrate with other soft tissues in the body, foam rolling can cause muscular release both for the muscle group being worked on and - via a snowball effect - on adjacent and connected soft tissues.

In the end, the hows and whys of exactly how foam rolling works might not be able to be explained 100% from a scientific perspective, but my experience has shown me that it definitely doesn’t cause any harm.  Since having a massage therapist or other person loosen and release one’s soft tissues daily is completely impractical for almost everyone, self-massage and therapy is the most pragmatic option for most people.  Foam rolling is the most effective self-massage and therapy technique that I know of that people can reasonably include in their routines frequently and consistently.

The Bottom Line

Exactly how foam rolling works may be a bit of a mystery, but we do know that it is an effective technique that has been safely and successfully leveraged by athletes for decades.  In addition to helping to maintain proper ranges of motion, foam rolling can decrease pain levels and increase comfort and performance.  For this reason, all athletes should consider incorporating it into their Athlete’s Toolbox and utilizing it as part of their movement practice.


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Coach Laura Henry

Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.

She can be reached at

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