Foam Rolling & Massage Ball: Why, When & How



Have you seen people flapping about like a fish out of water on a foam roller in the gym?


You’ve tried it, but it hurt and you weren’t really sure if you were doing it right?


Here’s the low down on:

  1. Why you should be using them!
  2. When to use them for optimal benefit
  3. How to do it



Why is foam rolling so popular?


First of all, it’s cheap, portable, you can do it at-home, and it’s easy to squeeze into a busy schedule!


Foam rolling has boomed recently! You’d be hard pressed to find a professional athlete that doesn’t use one, and they’re found in pretty much every gym.


Foam rolling or using a massage ball is a form of ‘self manual-therapy’. It’s like getting a deep tissue massage, regularly, but you get to control the pressure and get all the good spots!


Like most fitness fads, it’s popularity is well ahead of the research (which takes time). Currently the proposed benefits are:

  1. Increased flexibility
  2. Enhanced short-term performance
  3. Improved post-exercise recovery


Currently we’ve got good evidence that foam rolling does improve flexibility, however the effect only lasts up to 10min (MacDonald et al., 2013). Don’t toss it in the trash just yet, there’s more to this story!


The jury is still out on performance benefit, one small study has shown promising results (Peacock et al., 2013). However, the evidence is very clear, it doesn’t compromise performance like static stretching does when used as part of a warm-up (Behm et al., 2006).


Who wouldn’t want to speed up your recovery from a training session so you can get back in there feeling pumped to go again?


Research is beginning to support the claims, foam rolling post-exercise does reduce Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) compared to no cool-down/recovery (Pearcey et al., 2015).


For such a simple and cost-effect item, foam rolling offers some wonderful benefits that can reduce your risk of injury whilst exercising!



When should you use a Foam Roller or Massage Ball?


If we look at the proposed benefits, there are two clear times when you should be using a foam roller or massage ball: before and after a workout.


When using a foam roller or massage ball immediately before your workout you can expect to gain improved flexibility without compromising your muscle’s performance capacity. This is a win-win that adds up to reduced risk of injury!


Now, earlier we mentioned that the effects on flexibility only last 10min. That’s totally fine, because that’s in a controlled research setting. Once you’re moving and breaking a sweat you should maintain that flexibility through continued movement!


So, all this means is you should be foam rolling immediately before your workout for optimal benefit, rather than at home before you leave.


Currently all the research we have on post-exercise recovery has used foam rolling immediately after the workout. Which makes total sense!


So, before you dash off to work or home for dinner post-exercise, jump on the foam roller or massage ball and calm those tired muscles so they’re ready to go again next session!


Now, here’s some fantastic news. There’s a third option. And this one might be easier if you’re stressed for time before/after your workouts.


Research has shown that when you use a foam roller consistently 3-5 times per week you can achieve AND retain improvements in flexibility (Cheatham et al., 2015). Ideally this would be your before/after exercise, but there is still some potential value in having a TV ad-break recovery session a few nights a week at home too!



How to use a Foam Roller or Massage Ball


Bad news first, it rarely feels comfortable.


Good news, current research suggests that JUST 20seconds per muscle is as effective as 60 seconds, so you don't need to spend too long on there!


More good news! Evidence is building that regular application (3-5 times per week) can have more permanent impacts on flexibility (Cheatham et al., 2015).


Practically, the most effective way to use these is to roll up and down the muscle trying to find the sore part, when you find it focus your pressure on that spot for 20 seconds. You will feel the discomfort slowly decrease. Done!


Using within a warm-up? Focus on the muscles or part of the body you’re about to focus on using. If you’re doing a full body session or class, spend your time focusing on your common tight or sore areas!


Using for recovery? Focus on the muscles you just used. Easy!


Adding a mobility session at home to your routine? Focus on your areas that need improvement, or that are commonly tight due to occupational demands.


Build recovery into your routine, and your body will thank you for it!


Happy self-torture!

Mark Walters
Mark Walters
Principal Physiotherapist (APA, DPT) B. Ex. Sci, D. Physio Mark thrives on helping people getting back to the activities they enjoy, and aims to do this with fun and engaging rehabilitation. He also has a passion for injury prevention and performance, as well as helping people age strong.