To paraphrase Dr. Paul Mostoff, Chief of Physical Therapy at All Sports Physical Therapy, if you’re human, you should be foam rolling. “Foam rolling is the closest you’ll get to having a physical therapist available on demand,” he says. “It’s one of the primary tools in your arsenal against pain, stiffness, and impaired mobility.” But if you’re not convinced being human is reason enough to start using one of these dense foam cylinders you see around the stretching area of most gyms, here are a few tell-tale signs you should put a foam roller to work.
Post-Workout Soreness Is Killing Your Game
Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is the unfortunate byproduct of a tough workout. No one likes it, but everyone gets it, especially when you’re hitting the gym hard. While there’s no way to prevent DOMS completely, foam rolling is one science-backed solution to help limit pain.
“These tools help reduce muscle restrictions and trigger points by applying deep pressure to tender points in the muscle for minutes at a time,” says John Sobernal, a physical therapist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center’s Performance Therapy in Santa Monica. “This resets the neuromuscular system, as well as brings blood-flow to the area.” The result? A reduced experience of pain. Whether foam rolling actually speeds up post-workout recovery is unclear (more studies need to be done), but even if physiological markers for recovery aren’t technically improved, there’s a lot to be said for feeling a little less sore.
You Feel Stiff and Inflexible
Groaning and shuffling as you get out of bed doesn’t have to be your new normal. While there are several strategies you can employ to help maintain your flexibility — like functional exercises taken through a full range of motion, dynamic stretching, and yoga — foam rolling is an easy way to give yourself an assist. “When a muscle gets overworked and tight, it’s really getting dehydrated.” says Dr. Mike Riccardi, a physical therapist at Finish Line Physical Therapy. “The muscle then doesn’t get the blood supply it needs to recover from workouts and ends up getting tighter and tighter.” Foam rolling helps prevent this slippery slope of tightness by helping muscles relax and “open up” to let blood and oxygen in, while carrying waste products away.
You Want to Be a Better Athlete
Aside from not walking like an old man, a properly implemented foam-rolling routine could actually make you a better athlete. The research in this area is still very new, but a 2017 study published in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy found that foam rolling for at least 90 seconds immediately prior to performing an overhead squat significantly improved movement patterns during the squat, likely related to a short-term increase in range of motion at the working joints.
Likewise, a 2016 study published in the Journal of Sport Rehabilitation found that using foam rolling as part of a pre-workout warm-up helped improve flexibility without hampering muscle strength — a better overall solution than dynamic or static stretching. While a 2014 study found that a warm-up combining dynamic exercises with foam rolling resulted in better overall performance in tests of power, speed, agility, and strength than a dynamic warm-up alone.
You’re Just “Knotty”
Even if you’re not actively in pain, chances are you have a few knots hiding out in your soft muscle tissue. “If you take your hand or finger and apply pressure to a muscle, you’ll find points that ‘light up,’ ” says Mostoff. “These are the ‘hot spots’ where you use the foam roller.” By identifying and massaging these hot spots as they arise, you’re essentially heading off bigger problems before they occur. Because foam rolling helps reduce pain and hydrate your muscles, it works as a form of self-care that keeps your body running like a well-oiled machine.