1. When it comes to foam rolling, there are no absolutes no matter what the experts say. When intelligently programmed with goals in mind, foam rolling can be a highly effective tool for improving movement quality, performance and recovery. Just depends if you are using it correctly.
2. Foam rolling in the pre-training routine is only appropriate when notable movement dysfunctions or pain has been identified and properly evaluated. If you are a pain-free functional mover, your time is better spent focusing on mobility drills in the warm up.
3. The post workout window provides the best opportunity to expedite the recovery process by programming strategic foam rolling techniques into the routine to improve local tissues while tapping into the systemic function of the parasympathetic system.
4. A nightly parasympathetic routine including deep diaphragmatic breathing, low level mobility drills and stretching and foam rolling can spark systemic recovery while also improving the global quality of sleep.
The Confusion of When To Foam Roll
When it comes to the daily choice to foam roll or not, many industry experts want to draw a hard line in the sand and preach their methods and beliefs in absolutism onto their highly impressionable following. Lets get one thing straight right off the bat, there is absolutely no room for absolutes, especially in practices as hard to objectify as self-myofascial release techniques.
If you are continuously frustrated and confused about what you should be doing to self-manage your body’s soft tissues, I don’t blame you, it’s hard to decipher this practice as effective, or as a shear and utter waste of time. This day and age in the fitness industry, information pertaining to foam rolling is inconsistent at best, and falsified at worst.
Who’s Right? The Science or The Gurus?
What’s important to understand is that no single peer reviewed research study or individual training guru can make absolute conclusive recommendations on a physical practice. Not one single study, nor one single expert is the conclusive source, period.
The scientific side of foam rolling is hard to reliably quantify. How do you control for every variable and identify true marked change in tissue quality, enhanced movement, perceived pain alleviation and a host of other reported effects of foam rolling’s functional transference and long term results?
To the same point, coaches and therapists who either preach foam rolling to every patient who strolls through their doors, or on the other end of the spectrum bans the foam roller from their facilities all together would be lying if they claimed to never have success on an individual with self-care of the soft-tissues. Will it work for everyone? Simply put, no. But will it work for someone… Yes.
Assess Your Individual Needs, Not The Needs of The Masses
So where does that leave us in terms of whether to prioritize foam rolling or not in a training or therapy program? The simple answer is that it depends on you as an individual study of N=1, and like most things, true success with any practice is usually found somewhere between the two polar opposite ends of the extremes. I like to refer to this as the zone of sanity.
Here’s exactly what you have to know pertaining to when and why to foam roll or practice self-myofascial release techniques to yield maximal benefit from your practice. And hey, I guarantee you’ll avoid wasting time and energy with a method that produces minimal return on investment while maximizing your results in the process.
When To Practice SMR Before Training or Sport
One of the most popular times you will see coaches recommending their clients and athletes get on the foam roller and address soft-tissues is in the pre-training routine. In the window directly before a training bout or sport specific activity or competition, there are only a few reasons ever to devote more than 60 seconds to self-myofascial release techniques.
First, does your athlete have a diagnosed marked movement deficit that has been reliably objectified in a proper evaluation of baseline function? If the answer is yes, then getting the ball rolling in your pre-training routine or dynamic warm up on the foam roller is warranted, and possibly even advantageous to the entire pre-training routine as a whole using a reliable system like my 6-Phase Dynamic Warm Up Sequence.
If you are indeed programming foam rolling into a pre-training routine, you better be using pre and post testing to determine the efficacy of the practice if you want to avoid wasting time better spend on other activities. If no objective change is made, don’t depend on the “feel good” subjective report of your client at this place and time, and don’t mistake that with actual functional transference into sport.
Figure out the linchpin of dysfunction and choose a specific 1-2 foam rolling techniques that will directly target that dysfunction. It’s easy to let foam rolling get out of hand for a client or athlete in pain or with marked movement dysfunctions, so reign in the temptation to over-prescribe self-myofascial release techniques and use your deductive logic and reasoning as a movement specialist instead.
Here’s an example of a traditional soft-tissue based foam rolling technique for the lateral hip:
On the flip side, if you are working with an athlete that presents as a functional mover with no big asymmetries of movement deficits, foam rolling in the pre-training routine should be limited t0 30-60 seconds in practice, period. If there are no big movement dysfunctions to work on, spending more time than a minute or so on this practice is an utter waste of time as they are already moving well. Don’t try to fix it if it ain’t broken or dysfunctional, and don’t try to impress yourself and your clients with your deep understanding of pain science, bio-kinematics or muscle physiology.
For functional movers, I have started to gravitate towards prescribing and programming “mobility” drills on top of the foam roller to take advantage of the change in force that you can manipulate with a body placed over a stationary foam roller to get a little direct trigger point work on specific areas while more importantly practicing and perfecting movement skills.
I’ll repeat this point because it’s important… If you are managing a functional mover, your best bet it to program mobility work on top of a stationary foam roller instead of direct soft-tissue work for best results, period. Here’s another example of mobility on top of the foam roller for that same lateral hip group:
Properly evaluating and identifying clients and athletes that fall into either or these two categories, functional or dysfunctional, is paramount to having success with the practice of soft-tissue work in the pre-training routine. But from my professional experience, I have seen far more athletes overdoing the practice of foam rolling in the pre-training routine that don’t need it than dysfunctional athletes under utilizing this practice. Keep that in mind as we move on, as the placebo effect of foam rolling is real, and can be one of the most common time wasters in fitness.
Utilizing The Post Workout Window To Expedite Recovery
Often times people forget that foam rolling is a highly effective and efficient means for enhancing recovery after training bouts. All the key mechanisms that foam rolling and other self-myofascial release techniques tap into work perfectly to target regeneration at both a local tissue and systemic level.
One problem that is quite common in the fitness and athletic performance populations is the lack of utilization of the post workout window to expedite recovery. As soon as the final rep is completed, most high tail it out of the gym and are in a hurry to go sit on their ass the rest of the day at their desk or couch counting down the hours until their next meal. By slowing your clients down and programming regenerative techniques into a 5-15 minute post workout window, including foam rolling and self-myofascial release techniques, we can simply spark the recovery process for effectively.
For the most part, the activities of training and sport are highly driven by the sympathetic nervous system. That means that training hard will increase your heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory rate and neural involvement in the activities to perform and function to the best of your abilities. After driving up the sympathetic response for a period of time in training, is becomes highly advantageous from a recovery standpoint to bring back down the sympathetic response and tap into the opposite side of the nervous system, the parasympathetic.
In a simple yet effective program in the post workout window, drills that focus on breathing quality and rhythm, addressing soft tissue with stretching and self-myofascial release techniques, and even lower level mobility drills can quickly tap into the parasympathetic nervous system and reverse the neurological training effect that tends to take a long time to shut down fully after a heavy training bout for most people who run out the door and are on the go the rest of the day.
Here is one of my favorite hybrid foam rolling mobility drills that work extremely well in the post workout window to expedite recovery while also incorporating deep breathing techniques:
While this isn’t ideal for many people as devoting as much time to actual training is sometimes more ideal from a fat loss, muscle building and conditioning standpoint, there is a way around it. While I preach programming a parasympathetic routine directly after intense training bouts, I also make sure that I educate my patients and clients on the importance of a nightly maintenance routine centered around foam rolling and soft-tissue work. Results are found with consistency, and if you’ve ever trained a human being in your life, you know that educating your clientele on things they can do away from the gym and your direct supervision is where the gains are really cultivated.
The Parasympathetic Foam Rolling Routine
By now it is clear that foam rolling has some pretty awesome benefits in terms of sparking the recovery process. These include the alleviation of pain, especially muscular pain and delayed onset muscle soreness, localizing blood flow to tissues being targeted and providing a “feel good” effect to many. Sure, reduction in DOMS is great, but what I find very compelling is the utilization of the “feel good” effect for tapping into the parasympathetic nervous system and being able to translate local foam rolling of tissues into targeted muscle recovery, but more importantly a systemic rest and relaxation response.
By spending time each night on the foam roller after daily workouts and activities have concluded, we can aid the recovery process and also help transition into a restful sleeping state. How exactly do we do this?
Prioritizing the inclusion of large areas of musculature such as the quads, glutes, hamstrings, pectoralis group and lats will not only yield local recovery to those tissues, but will also have a better chance at sparking a systemic recovery effect due to the proximity of these muscles to the skin, as compared to deeper and smaller muscles of the body. While the mechanism of why foam rolling reduces tone of tissues is largely unclear, the fact of the matter is that the “feel good” effect from targeting these large superficial tissues is simply the body moving into a parasympathetic state.
Spending a few minutes on each of the major movers mentioned above while focusing on deep diaphragmatic breathing strategies is one of the single most effective recovery strategies that I have used that is self-directed and internally driven. This practice, when paired with low level mobility drills and oscillatory stretching sets the body and mind up for success in maintaining a restful state and transitioning into the sleep cycle.
This is a powerful recovery mechanism that when nutrition and training are on point, can have the ability to allow athletes to train at higher intensities, frequencies and levels of performance. And guess what, it’s free. All you have to do is put down the phone and shut off the TV before bed and spend 10-15 minutes with only your body, breath and mind. Think you can do that? If not, you’re not as serious about your training and performance as you think you are.
Putting It All Together To Perfect Your Foam Rolling Practice
Now that the foundation is laid out as to when, how and why we would incorporate foam rolling and other self-myofascial release techniques into your training and daily routines, lets review the various options just to ensure that the path to effective and efficient soft-tissue work is blatantly clear so you can avoid wasting time flopping around on the foam roller.
#1 Pre-Training Routine
If you are a dysfunctional mover, get screened, evaluated or diagnosed by a movement professional or do some homework on your own, then determine the 1-2 self-myofascial release techniques you will key in on in the pre-training routine. Objectify your practice with pre and post testing.
If you are a functional mover with no big movement deficits, prioritize mobility drills incorporating the foam roller as a catch all self-myofascial release trigger point technique plus controlled mobility. Only devote 30-60 seconds in this phase of your dynamic warm up as your priorities lie elsewhere in the performance spectrum.
#2 Post Training Routine
Devote 5-15 minutes bringing down your sympathetic system by prioritizing deep diaphragmatic breathing techniques while targeting large tissues that were active in the days training session with foam rolling and oscillatory based stretching. This session is targeting recovery, so focus your mental energies on slowing down your movement, breath and mental train of thought as opposed to pushing through hard painful reps of forced movements or torturous soft-tissue work.
#3 Nightly Parasympathetic Routine
After your daily activities and training have concluded for the day, spend 10-15 minutes working on your breath, soft-tissues and mental train of thought to prepare your body for a restful night’s sleep. Low level mobility drills, stretching and foam rolling should be included in your soft-tissue practice. If you are serious about your training and recovery, this will become a mandatory nightly routine.
Foam Rolling’s Final Verdict… It Depends On YOU!
There you have it guys! No more excuses to be confused as to what you should be doing and when you should be doing it when it comes to the foam roller and other soft-tissue techniques. Spend the time and figure out what’s going to benefit you and your body the most, and please, I’m begging you… Stop it with the 45 minute full body foam rolling sessions!
About The Author
Dr. John Rusin is a sports performance specialist and injury prevention expert that has coached some of the world’s most elite athletes including multiple Olympic gold medalists, NFL & MLB All-Star performers, and professional athletes from 11 different sports. Dr. Rusin has also managed some of the most successful barbell sport athletes in the world including world record holding powerlifters, CrossFit Games athletes, and IFBB professional bodybuilders and physique athletes. His innovative pain-free performance programs have been successfully used by over 25,000 athletes, which has gained him the reputation as the go-to industry expert for rebuilding after pain, injuries or plateaus. Dr. Rusin is also the founder of the Pain-Free Performance Specialist Certification (PPSC) that has certified over 1500 personal trainers, strength coaches and rehab pros from across the globe in his methods over the past two years.