What is Foam Rolling?

Aug 1, 2015

More and more we get asked about this thing called a foam roller, so we thought it would be useful to write a blog on what it is and how it can help you.

What is a foam roller?

Over the last few years using a foam roller has become more fashionable. But what is it? What does it do? and does this strange cylinder object that causes discomfort actually work?

Lets be very clear about this, foam rolling and stretching are completely different.  One does not replace the other. Foam rolling should be considered as an addition to stretching not a replacement. A foam roller is used to supplement the work of a deep tissue massage specialist but again not replace a sports massage. If you are using a foam roller correctly, along with your own body weight, it can help prevent injuries and enhance recovery.  Foam rolling is a form of self myofascial release (SMR).

What is Self Myofacial Release?

The research around facia and myofacial release is still relatively young and our knowledge of how facia interacts and can be manipulated is a complex area.  General consensus is applied in the research more than hard facts as many researchers attempt to understand fully the mechanisms which influence the fascia.  essentially we don’t yet fully understand how it works. Schleip (2012) defines fascia as “the soft tissue component of the connective tissue system that permeates the human body )and) that is part of a body wide tensional force transmission system”. Simple enough eh?

Essentially though there are different layers of fascia; superficial, deep and visceral.  More generally speaking it is the connective tissue which wraps around muscles and interacts with muscular function and load transmission.

Much of the research has focused around the benefits of SMR and studies have shown that it can assist in the reversal of blood flow restrictions (Walton, 2012) and reduce pain (Miernik, 2012).  Schleip (2013) also noted that the fascia system in 67% water and that by redistributing the water may help flush and rehydrate the system and enhance its function.

MacDonald (2012) also demonstrated that two 1min bouts of foam rolling applied to the hamstring group improved flexibility at the knee. This ability to improve flexibility was supported by Sullivan (2013) and Howe (2013). In summary there is evidence to suggest that foam rolling can enhance flexibility.

Additionally there is evidence from MacDonald (20130 and Jay (2014) that foam rolling massage can reduce delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) as a result of training and enhance recovery.  This is likely to occur through improving arterial function.  As a consequence many elite athletes across a diverse range of sports now use foam rolling techniques routinely.  Anecdotally the evidence is strong at least.

 Who should foam roll?

Anyone, is the simple answer here. Mainly because there are no negative side effects of foam rolling and the benefits for those interested in performance and recovery are easy to achieve.  While the injury prevention aspect is important for those with sedentary jobs.

Runners and cyclists should foam roll in particular for many reasons, including sedentary lifestyles, sitting down too much, overworked muscles, not enough stretching or injuries, and because fascia and underlying muscle tissue within the body can become stuck together. This is called an adhesion, or trigger point.  These adhesions result in restricted muscle flexibility and blood flow. With this comes a reduction in flexibility, and muscle efficiency, and if untreated can lead to symptomatic pain and possible injury.

SMR techniques help break up trigger points, and soothe tight fascia, while increasing blood flow and circulation to the soft tissues. This can lead to improved range of motion, flexibility and movement, increased blood flow, and will assist in returning your muscles to normal function.

Different types of foam rollers

If you search for a foam roller you will notice a whole range of different sizes and densities, as well the newer breed of hollow core rollers with fancy nodules. Choosing the right roller is purely down to the individual. There are a few things to think about when buying, including cost, durability, and also your pain threshold.

The solid dense foam rollers are at the lowest end of the price bracket and, with that, have the shortest functioning lifespan. Over a period of time, with regular weight bearing SMR, the foam loses its shape and the benefits are reduced. If you have a low pain threshold, a lot of adhesions, or are new to foam rolling, then a dense EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate) roller is a good starting point.

Newer foam rollers have a dense, or hollow, plastic core. This significantly increases the longevity of the product, as the core keeps the foam roller’s shape. The foam won’t disfigure, and you will be able to get a deeper massage. They are more expensive, but well worth the investment. You will also find foam rollers with various contours, designed to give a more intense massage.If your not sure whats best speak to one of our physio’s for advice.

How to foam roll?

Foam rolling is easy to do, simply follow our 7 simple steps to get started:

1. Roll the entire length of the muscle (60seconds)

2. Return to any tender areas and maintain pressure

3. Breathe deeply and relax (for between 30-45 seconds)

4. As pain/tenderness disperses (by 50-75%), move onto the next tender area

5. Spit longer muscles into 3 sections, roll 2inches and then move back an inch.  At this point now roll left and right and work across the breadth of the muscle as well. 

6. Drink plenty water.

7. Progress the amount of pressure applied as your tolerance increases.


Which muscles should you foam roll? Here is our 8 favourite exercise for runners and cyclists! 

You can use a foam roller to target any part of the body, so it’s about experimenting what works for you. With runners and cyclists, the general areas to pay particular attention to are the feet, calves, glutes, hip flexors and hamstrings. If your not sure speak to one of our team who can go through which foam rolling exercises would be most beneficial for you.

1. Feet



Poor mobility around the foot and ankle is a major contributor to injuries throughout the body. We spend so much time on our feet, so they do need looking after. Due to circulatory difficulties, the fascia and the large number of muscles at the base of our feet get tight, and the frequent build up of adhesions occurs.

Place one foot across the top of your foam roller. Apply pressure and slowly roll from toe to heel. You can also angle your foot to ensure you target the arch and the outer portion of your foot. If you don’t get much purchase from the foam roller then use a golf ball, hockey ball or similar, to massage. This can be a lot more intense, but you can really target specific tight areas.

2. Quadriceps and hip flexors




Sedentary lifestyles, and being in a seated position more than ever, has led to huge tightness and postural issues for a number of us. As a result, our quadriceps and hip flexors need some attention. Start in a face down position, resting on your forearms with the foam roller just above you knee. Ensure you contract your abs and back muscle to prevent any unnecessary pressure on your spine. Slowly roll up towards just below your hip and spend more time on any tender areas that you locate. The quads are a large muscle group, so don’t neglect the more medial or lateral aspects of the quad. You can do this by tilting your body.

3. Adductors




The adductors are one of the most important muscles to target. They get extremely tight in runners and are often neglected, particularly during post run stretches. They are a muscle group that runs along the inner thigh and, if overly tight, can inhibit your glutes.

Lie in a face down position, turn one leg out and rest the foam under your inner thigh. It does look a little awkward and you may get some funny looks if you do in public, but it is really important. Start with the roller close to your groin and roll down towards your knee. They can be particularly tender, so take your time rolling.

4. TFL and Iliotibial Band (ITB)




This muscle, and the attached tendon, can often be the cause of a number of problems. ITB syndrome, for example, is a common problem in runners who increase mileage too quickly, and is more common in females due to their generally wider pelvis structure.

Lie on your side, with the foam roller sitting just above your knee towards the outer thigh. Cross over your other leg, rest on your forearm, and slowly roll up towards you hip. When you first apply pressure to your ITB it can be painful. If you can, then stick with it, as over time the pain will reduce. If it is too much, then go and see a deep tissue specialist who can work on your first.

You can progress this, and apply more pressure, by resting your leg on top of the one you are currently working.

5. Glutes and Piriformis




The glutes are such an important muscle for runners to utilise. Unfortunately, a vast majority of runners have difficulty in engaging their glutes, so they are missing out on improved running technique, pelvis stability, and power.

The piriformis is a small muscle located within the glutes (its position, size, and structure can vary with individuals). Due to the sciatic nerve travelling through it, or close to it (depending on the individual), when it’s tight or in spasm it can bring some negative symptoms. This includes sciatica-type symptoms (piriformis syndrome), and also the glutes then have an inability to engage correctly.

Sit on a foam roller, lean slightly to whichever side you are targeting, and gently roll around the muscle. Whilst still focused on that side, cross the opposing leg over your knee. This will open up your hip joint and allow you to target your piriformis.

This can be extremely painful with some individuals, so take your time and ensure that your muscles are relaxed.

6. Hamstrings

Physiotools online

Physiotools online


The hamstrings are a really important muscle for runners, and by keeping them flexible you will improve your performance and can also relieve and prevent lower back pain.

Sit on a foam roller with your legs outstretched. Place your hands behind you for support. Roll from just behind your knee to the base of your glutes, pausing at any tender areas. You can work different parts and angles of your hamstrings by turning your feet in or out.

7. Back




Work load, being seated too long, high stress levels, and other factors, contribute to tight/weak upper back muscles and poor rotation through your thoracic spine. This dysfunction can cause pain and inefficient running technique. Foam rolling is a great way to unlock some of these muscles and free up your movement.


Lie on your back and place the foam roller beneath your upper neck, near your shoulder blades. Your feet and backside should be on the ground. Cross your arms across your chest, brace your abs, and slowly roll from your upper neck to the middle of your back. To increase the pressure, you can bridge your glutes off the floor whilst you roll.

8. Calves



The calves are made up of the gastrocnemius and the soleus muscles and come together to insert into the heel via the achilles tendon.  They are powerful muscles which help control the acceleration phase of our running and walking movements.  These are really important for running and very easy to foam roll.  Foam rolling works really well with these muscles and its easy to progress by increasing the body weight used to help them recover from the impact of your training.

Important – please note the following when using a foam roller:

It is important to relax into these exercises, with slow and deliberate movements. Make sure you continue to breathe during the rolling movement.

There is no set time or rep range with foam rolling; the goal is to release tight muscle, increase flexibility, and promote muscle and joint health.

Some areas can be extremely painful when initially targeting. Stick with it, as after a few sessions the discomfort will reduce and the benefits will increase.

If you are unsure with any of the techniques, or find them too painful, then seek the advice and assistance of on of our team.

Steven McLean

0333 301 0205

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