How to Use a Foam Roller (and Why You Should)

By Gabrielle Kassel | April 18, 2019


Has a bump up in Tough Mudder training—or the event itself—left you with stiff, tight muscles? We feel you. We’ve all had days when even the most mundane tasks are difficult because your body is so damn sore.  

But could something as simple as foam rolling (aka "self massage") be the solution to your aching-muscle woes? I'd read about it on the Internet, but I had never looked into how to use a foam roller—or done any actual research on the benefits of foam rolling. Turns out, the experts I spoke to agreed that foam rolling is a good idea for any Mudder in training.

“Anyone who uses muscles to move can benefit from foam rolling," says Yusuf Jeffers, a NASM-certified personal trainer who coaches a foam rolling class at Tone House. Literally, everyone. Endurance and OCR athletes will benefit from using foam rolling techniques because running is highly repetitive in nature and can lead to a high incidence of overuse injuries, he says. "The muscles that get overused tend to get tight, and a tight muscle doesn't function properly. But when you foam roll, you can loosen the tight muscles so that the body can function as it should, pain-free."

Foam rolling can also help increase circulation (blood flow and oxygen), according to Michael Conlon, PT Founder and CEO of Finish Line Physical Therapy in NYC. And by increasing circulation, the tissues will ultimately heal faster, which will let you get going on your next workout.

MORE: Tight Calves? 6 Moves to Stretch and Strengthen Your Calf Muscles

“Myofascial work like foam rolling and lacrosse ball work removes knots, trigger points, and can help with lactic acid build up,” adds Dan Giordano, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., cofounder of Bespoke Treatments Physical Therapy, pointing to research which has found that used pre-workout, post-workout, or simply to start the day, foam rolling has serious benefits, including easing muscle soreness, correcting muscle imbalance, and increasing range of motion.


How to Use a Foam Roller

The way to use a foam roller is actually pretty simple:

1. Begin by picking a big muscle group and lie with your body on top of the roller so you can control the pressure.

2. When you hit a trigger point or tight spot, work on that spot by slowly rolling back and forth until the tightness slowly dissipates. Over time this will help restore the muscle's length and mobility while decreasing overall muscle stiffness, Giordano explains.

3. Spend 1-2 minutes on each spot, on average (although you should let the tightness and soreness of your body dictate how long you use the foam roller). A little goes a long way: Conlon suggests spending 5 minutes before and after a workout for Mudders who are tight on time.

4. If you feel like you're actually in pain, shift your body weight to take some pressure off.

Admittedly, it can be a bit torturous at first, because you’re literally adding pressure into a sore spot. So listen to your body, says Jeffers. It should feel like a heavy-duty massage that hurts so good, not one that just plain hurts. Now's not the time to tough it out, Mudder Nation.

Don't make the mistake of simply draping yourself over a foam roller while watching HBO and haphazardly rolling out the muscle, warns Paul Ochoa P.T., D.P.T., O.C.S., C.M.P.T., L.M.T., owner of F Squared Physical Therapy. Foam rolling is a sports massage, after all, which means you can’t just lie on the spots that are sore, you need to put brief pressure on the muscles.

Another mistake to avoid: “Never foam roll your lower back," Giordano says. "Direct pressure on the lower spine can cause muscles surrounding the spine to go into spasms… which is painful and counterproductive." 

While your gym may have foam rollers, it's worth investing in your own. Foam rollers vary in price, size, firmness, and shape. Long rollers provide more area for stability and support, while shorter options are more versatile and convenient for travel. Pro tip: The size and shape don’t really matter—as long as you use it. 


Gabrielle Kassel is a New York-based fitness and wellness writer and CrossFit Level 1 trainer. When she's not lifting heavy sh*t, playing rugby, or getting downright dirty, she can be found reading memoirs and guzzling cold brew. Follow her on Instagram.