Updated: Jan 30, 2020
In most (decent) gyms nowadays, you’ll see people grabbing a foam roller before they start training plonking themselves down on the floor and rolling out various muscles before they start their warm up. I definitely encourage my clients to do this before their sessions, but what does it actually do?
There are claims that foam rolling lengthens the muscle and breaks down scar tissue, but the research doesn’t actually support these ideas. For that to happen, you would have to produce a crazy amount of force - far more than the human body can produce unassisted.
Why do I feel better and looser after foam rolling?
It appears the power of foam rolling is more neurophysiological than it is physical. This basically means that when you foam roll, you decrease muscle tone. Muscle tone is the constant, passive contraction of a muscle, subconsciously controlled by your brain. With this in mind, sometimes the feeling of tightness is down to muscle tone rather than muscle length. So when it comes to foam rolling, the pressure you put on the muscle from the foam roller disrupts how the brain controls the muscle, reducing the muscle tone or perceived tightness. That is why you feel better and ‘looser’.
Now you know about muscle tone, I should mention that under no circumstances you should foam roll your iliotibial band (IT band). Your IT band is not a muscle - it's a tendon that connects your hips, quads and hamstrings together and because it's a tendon, it can’t have tone. If you feel you have a tight IT band, foam roll the muscles surrounding it. If you foam roll your IT band itself, you’re only causing yourself unwanted pain.
How long should I foam roll for?
Researchers haven't produced a definitive answer to this yet. In some studies it's been shown that short bouts of 10-60 seconds can be effective. A lot of people will do it for anywhere between 10-30 minutes.
The actual benefits of foam rolling (feeling looser) are short lived though, so for me, anything more than a few minutes is a waste of time, when you could be doing something more beneficial before training, which involves some movement.