Should You Use a Foam Roller Before a Workout or Run?
If you spend consistent time in the gym or participating in athletic activities, you’re probably familiar with foam rollers. Perhaps you use them on a regular basis, or maybe you never have and aren't sure what they do. Either way, do you know when and how to use one?
Watch people in the gym and you’ll see some use them before their workout, some afterward; some do it for a couple of minutes while others seem to linger for 30 minutes or more, rolling up and down their entire body.
So, when is the right time to use a foam roller, and will using one improve your performance or reduce pain?
If you’re confused, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Foam rolling is a highly debated issue among fitness professionals, due to a lack of cohesive, conclusive research. Foam rollers and self-massage tools are newer to the fitness world, so much more study needs to be done to fully understand how they work. For now, many articles, doctors and therapists will say, “We don’t know how it works, but we know it does.”
BENEFITS OF FOAM ROLLING
Luckily, there are a few benefits of foam rolling (or “self-manual therapy”) that most studies agree on:
So, should you foam roll before a workout or run?
WHY YOU SHOULD USE A FOAM ROLLER PRIOR TO A WORKOUT
Research shows that massage with a foam roller may offer short-term benefits for flexibility and range of motion (ROM). While stretching also does this, what is unique about foam rolling is that it doesn’t affect muscle performance. Static stretching prior to a workout has been shown to reduce strength and performance during your workout/ athletic activity, whereas foam rolling can be done without any negative effects on muscle function.
One study showed significant increase in hip extension and knee flexion ROM and sit- and-reach scores after foam rolling compared to a control group who did not foam roll.
Another study indicated that when foam rolling was used alongside dynamic movements as part of a warm-up routine that power, agility, strength and speed improved.
It is important to note that this improved range of motion will allow you to get more out of your workout and experience less pain, but the effects are short lived. Most studies say that 10 minutes is the longest it will last. However, some studies show that if foam rolling is done on a consistent basis over time, it can improve long-term flexibility.
Any exercise should always be preceded by a warm-up. Warm-ups can consist of cardio, stretching, dynamic movements, and of course, foam rolling. This is important because it helps to loosen up the joints, increase blood flow, gradually raise your heart rate, and prepares the body to perform exercises. Rolling on a foam roller or using one to massage muscles also increases blood flow to those areas and helps loosen up your body, making them an important part of a warm-up routine.
They can also be used to reduce tension and pain in particularly tight areas by maintaining pressure on tender areas.
A practical example of this would be using a lacrosse ball to roll out tight hip flexors and a foam roller on the glutes to reduce tension and allow for a greater range of motion to perform squats.
How to Use a Foam Roller Before and During Workouts
The good news is that we know foam rolling before a workout can improve the effectiveness and safety of your workout. The bad news is that exact time, sets, and protocol is still up in the air. However, there are some general guidelines you can follow:
Time & Frequency
These same techniques can also be used between sets during your workout to maintain mobility and pain reduction.
What about Post-Workout?
Scientific research recommends using a foam roller post-workout as well. This is a time when you can hold the roller on any tender spot that you feel for up to 90 seconds if needed.
Though the flexibility benefits are short-term and may last as little as two minutes, foam roller massage after a workout can reduce muscle soreness in the days following intense exercise and competition. One study showed that after participants performed 10 sets of 10 squats at 60% max, DOMS, perceived pain, and muscle tenderness improved “moderate to large amounts” after foam rolling for 20 minutes.
Some studies suggest that more dense massage tools, such as foam rollers with PVC interiors are superior to all foam.