Foam rolling has become a pretty popular part of people’s fitness routines over the past few years. Rollers are stocked in every gym, in most athletic training rooms, and most fitness minded people even have them in their homes these days. While they have become a very trendy fitness tool, there seems to still be a little bit of confusion about how they should be used. I have had several people ask me the exact same question: should I foam roll before my workout or after?
The answer, much like anything in the fitness world, doesn’t have to be set in stone, but I want to give you my thoughts today, based on my own experience and everything that I’ve read on the matter.
Why foam roll in the first place?
If you ask a lot of people why they foam roll, they’ll tell you that it helps them stretch. They are wrong. Foam rolling is not a replacement for stretching, although the importance of stretching is a different argument altogether.
I also overheard one of my student athletes recently tell a teammate that foam rolling was to help “get the lactic acid out”, which is also untrue (and to which I gave a super sassy eye roll).
What others will tell you is that foam rolling is a type of “myofascial release”, essentially loosening the adhesions between the connective tissue (fascia) and the underlying muscle tissue. And I think that this can be both true and untrue. So with all of these misconceptions about why we are using this tool in the first place, what the heck are we actually doing? Whether or not the foam roller is actually loosening adhesions or providing a form of myofascial release has yet to be proven. However, Thomas Meyers, author of Anatomy Trains (an amazing book if you’re a manual therapist or anatomy geek like me!), describes foam rolling as a way to help lubricate the fascia to help muscles glide a little bit better throughout movements.
What is fascia?
Fascia is a type of connective tissue that covers every part of our body. It is basically woven network of tissue, seamlessly connecting each body part to the next. Fascia runs between muscles, within muscles, around tendons and beneath your skin. You could actually remove all of the fascia from a human body and have a true 3-D replica of that person — true fact. So to ignore the integrity of your fascia and go straight to treating/stretching muscles seems like a pretty big oversight, wouldn’t you agree? It’s this network of connective tissue that can often determine your quality of movement, or lack thereof. If the fascia is dehydrated and fibrotic, it can become “stuck” in certain places, restricting movement and causing pain. This can begin an unfortunate cycle of restricted movement and muscle shortening that leads to a more permanent movement limitation, and this is what we must try to avoid as much as possible as we grow older.
So…Back to foam rolling…
Right. The reason why we’re here! The theory is that foam rolling can help lubricate this fascial system, breaking up adhesions and moving fluid throughout, helping our bodies to glide through movements more easily. If you think about it in this context instead of “stretching” muscles, it seems pretty obvious that foam rolling and mobility work should be done before a workout. A workout, whether it be a run or a heavy session in the weight room, is much more effective (and safe) if your movement quality is better, and foam rolling can help achieve this.
Whether you are training in the evening or first thing in the morning, foam rolling before a session is always a good idea. Think about this: if you workout first thing in the morning, your fascial system is likely dehydrated and stiff from lying still for 8+ hours. On the other hand, if you’re working out in the evening, certain parts of your body are probably stiff and/or shortened due to extensive sitting throughout the day. When it comes down to it, most people can use a little bit of help in the movement quality department, no matter what time of day it is or what type of job they work (sedentary, active, etc.), although some more than others. When it comes to working out, proper movement will not only help you perform your exercises correctly, it can also help to prevent injury.
So is it bad to foam roll after a workout?
Even though I do feel that it is important to foam roll before, that’s not to say that foam rolling after a training session is a bad idea. You just have to be aware of what you’re trying to achieve. If you’re trying to remove built up lactic acid from your muscles, you’ll be trying forever because that, I’m afraid, is a myth.
I have not read anything that proves that foam rolling post activity can help with muscle recovery, but if it makes you feel better after working out, than by all means go ahead. It’s not hurting anything.
The only caveat here would be the type of foam roller you are using. If you just annihilated your muscles with a heavy squat day, your muscles have already undergone micro tearing (damage). Subsequently digging in there with a “Rumble Roller” or PVC piping will only add more damage to those muscles, and could potentially delay recovery. On those days, I would recommend a dynamic cool down, some light stretching, and maybe a light foam roll post-workout. Most massage therapists who perform deep tissue massage recommend aggressive soft tissue work only once per week, maximum. Digging in there with a Rumble Roller is essentially deep soft tissue work, and should be treated accordingly.
Long story short…
Foam rolling is not going to cure all ailments, or improve your lifting mechanics over night. It is not the be-all, end-all that some people would have you think it is. It can, however, be a useful tool to add into your routine, especially during your warmup for a training session. That being said, when used within your warm up, foam rolling should not replace an actual dynamic warm up that readies your central nervous system for the workout you are about to endure. Remember, movement quality is just as important (if not more) than movement quantity, so taking the time for a proper warm up and mobility work before each training session will help to ensure that you get everything out of your workout that you’re putting into it. Poor movement leads to poor workouts, which will leave you with poor results, or possibly even injury. Take the time to help your body move correctly before your workout, and it will thank you with less pain, more effective training sessions, and better results.