Foam rolling should not leave you feeling sore. If it does, you're either doing it too aggressively, or you have a condition for which foam rolling is not appropriate. I understand the popularly held view that foam rolling works best when you go hard, but there is a serious lack of logic underlying that particular approach to improving mobility and reducing symptoms such as pain and stiffness. I cringe when I see people in the gym torturing themselves on a foam roller. In order to understand why it doesn't make sense to be too aggressive with a foam roller, it is helpful to consider what your ultimate goal is. Invariably, the goal is to reduce pain / stiffness and / or improve mobility. So how does foam rolling help you achieve these goals?

How does Foam Rolling Work?

I love using the foam roller along my thoracic spine. It always leaves me feeling looser, more comfortable and lighter. But how? A popularly held view is that the foam roller "releases your fascia". The nuts and bolts of that view is that the pressure of the roller brings about an uncrimping or localised stretching of the fascia that lies beneath your skin and surrounds all your muscles. I would encourage you to move beyond this view as an explanation for why foam rolling helps you to feel looser, less pain etc.

Foam Rolling Has Nothing To Do With Your Fascia

Fascia is very strong tissue. It's tensile and elastic properties of your fascia will not be altered in any way by your foam rolling. I implore you to do away with the idea that foam rolling has anything to do with your fascia. So if foam rolling works, but has nothing to do with fascia, how does it work?

Foam Rolling helps generate Descending Modulation from your Central Nervous System

A more plausible explanation for the useful effects of foam rolling is that the pressure of the foam roller generates a response from your central nervous system that results in a reduction in muscular tension and dampening of sensitivity of nerve endings and nerve pathways in the region where you have used the foam roller. So rolling along your thoracic spine tends to bring about a sense of movement freedom and a reduction in pain. Same goes for rolling along your iliotibial band, hamstrings, calves or wherever.

Why is Foam Rolling hard a problem?

People who are very aggressive with foam roller often reports that it hurts while they're doing it. And it feels bruised and sore the next day... but then it feels great after that. The problem with this approach is that;

  1. it's not necessary to go through the soreness to get to the relief

  2. it may be cyclical. Meaning that the relief is temporary, and the heavy, aggressive pressure of the roller may actually be cumulatively increasing the sensitivity of the nerve endings in the region being foam rolled. This cumulative sensitisation is known as long term potentiation. You don't want this. In other words, going really hard with the foam roller might be counter-productive.

Is there a Better Way?

Foam Rolling should not be about enduring pain in the present in the hop of some sort of future benefit

Yes! Try following these steps;

  • Don't torture yourself on the foam roller. Use a pressure that is comfortable... it might be firm, but it shouldn't be so hard that you are grimacing and counting the seconds to the end of your set.

  • You should feel the benefit of the foam rolling while you are rolling. It shouldn't be matter of enduring pain in the hope of some future benefit

  • Remember that the reason you are foam rolling is to get your muscles to relax a little and your nerve pathways to be a bit less sensitive. Your body will respond better to a degree of pressure that is firm but comfortable.

  • If you're sore after foam rolling, try going lighter next time. If you're still sore, you may have a condition that requires a more thorough examination. In such a case, please book in with your Physio for an assessment.