Foam Rolling

Foam Rolling is one of the most popular methods athletes use for recovery and preparation. All around the world, from local level right up to Olympic level, athletes can be seen seesawing, rolling and contorting in every which way over a small foam tube, trigger ball or even an old scuffed up lacrosse ball. This is usually paired with the athlete screwing up their face in pain, and counting down the seconds until it’s over. Why do they put themselves through it? What does it even do? This article will help shed some light on why athletes love this pain, what it does for their recovery and performance and how you can implement it in your own training.

Pic 1- NBA Superstar Lebron James using a Foam Roller at team USA practice


Foam rolling is a relative of the massage-therapy family. Massage has been used for centuries1 as a tool to help aid ailments and improve movement and performance. The main benefits of massage are relaxation, decreased muscle tension and increased mobility1. Pressing and prodding into our bodies has been an integral part of our manual therapy methods, and it seems like a natural progression that we substituted our hands for a hard rollable surface. Foam rolling, as we know it today, began to surface in the 1980’s among medical and dancing circles6 , but has origins earlier than that. Here is a video in the 1950’s of women working to slim down their stomachs, waistline and legs and increase flexibility with rolling machines.



While that may look silly to us, the mechanisms and benefits of foam rolling are still not totally understood. The level of scientific research is relatively inconclusive2 , but we cannot ignore the widespread usage among any level of performance. They can now be found in any commercial gym, department store or sporting club, elite to local level. This does not Pic 1- NBA Superstar Lebron James using a Foam Roller at team USA practice completely validate the technique, but it does provide a justification for both usage and further research. That brings up the question: What do they do and do they actually work?

Myofascial Release

Firstly, we must discuss what fascia is. It can be defined as a soft tissue component of the connective tissue system within the human body3 . It serves three main purposes
  • Provide strength and structure (around muscles, tendons and Joints)3
  • Maintain relative positions of organs3
  • Provide a route for the distribution of vessels and nerves 3
When we foam roll, the main things we are trying to achieve is increase mobility4 , provide a more localised and more effective warm up4 and help reduce delayed onset of muscle soreness [DOMS] 4,5. Increasing mobility via foam rolling has been termed “Self-Myofascial release”. This is achieved by putting pressure on fascia, and trigger points throughout the body, to increase blood flow to low flow areas4 and help decrease tension in the area. However, this is not fully understood and it is unclear whether or not this is the fascia, the muscle, or a combination of both that relax to cause lengthening and loosening in and around joints and muscle bellies2 . There is conflicting evidence as to whether or not it actually does improve performance physiologically2,3, but I must mention there is a large psychological affect to foam rolling, which cannot be ignored when discussing foam rolling5 . We do know that it can aid in warm-ups and mobility so it is very commonly used. Here at Acceleration Melbourne, we use trigger pointing before training to aid in mobility and work into sore spots, then utilise foam rolling after training to help speed up recovery and lessen the impact of DOMs.
Pic 2- There are a number of different Foam rolling tools and brands you can choose from

Practical Applications

So now you know where it has come from, and what the science says. But what does that mean for you specifically? What can you do before and after training to see benefit? Here is a breakdown


  • Foam rolling is typically focussed around the legs, hips and back. Many people choose to roll from the bottom up, so working from the feet, to lower legs, thighs etc., which should be the beginning of your rolling program. A particular focus should be placed on the hips (Hip Flexors, Psoas, Hip Rotators) and the surrounding muscles (Upper Hamstrings, Upper Quadriceps, Gluteal muscles), given their importance for human movement and propensity to get tight. This will include rolling on the front, side and back of the hips as well as inside (adductors) and outside (ITB) the legs and lower back as well. The next step would be to direct the rolling to the upper back, or thoracic spine. This is another critical part of the body where flexibility is imperative. Rolling in and around the shoulder blades(Rhomboids), near the neck (Trapezius) and towards the arm pits (Latissimus Dorsi). The last step would be a self-directed session, to work into any sore or tight spots. There are trigger points around the body (Psoas, Hip Flexors, Calves etc.), which will help release surrounding areas. Experiment with a smaller, more direct force (like a trigger ball), and find what works best for you.


  • Foam Rolling and trigger point therapy has essentially three uses: Warm-ups, recovery and flexibility training. It can be a good way to start your warm up, as you are increasing mobility and flexibility and it can help you physically and mentally prep for the rest of your pre-game activities. I would program it at the start of the warm up, and not just before the game as you should be completing very game specific and high intensity efforts just prior to game time. I would suggest keeping it short and sharp (10 mins total, 20-30 seconds per muscle) as time can be limited pre-game. As part of your recovery, I would lengthen the session out and spend a bit more time on each muscle. Obviously this is dependent on you and how you are feeling post-match, but I would take up to 40-60 seconds per muscle and spend 15- 20 minutes rolling out your body. As part of your flexibility training it is up to you how long you roll for, but in some respects the longer the better. As long as you can handle the pain and are still feeling benefit, I would say keep rolling!


  • Your tolerance to pain and your flexibility will largely determine the pressure you will be able to apply. Foam rolling can be very painful, especially in tight and sore spots. If you can handle the pain, and are feeling the muscle relax and gain more mobility, press away. But if you find it too painful, and aren’t seeing any benefit, find a different angle, or a different tool to press into that area. The benefit of foam rolling will be limited if you only press lightly, so try and let as much of your weight down onto the roller as possible. Over time, your mobility and flexibility will increase, which will allow you to feel more pressure and find new positions to roll into.

Recovery- The why and how

Recovery from any kind of athletic performance, has come a long way over the years. From the days when drinking beer and smoking cigarettes were a way of saluting victory, before heading off to work for a week, we have reached an age where recovery is an essential part of performance, and thanks to advancements in science and technology, we have a wide variety of recovery modalities to choose from. Through what we see on TV, newspapers and social media, elite athletes use a huge number of recovery methods, from advanced technology (Cryotherapy, compression pants), cruel and unusual methodologies (needling, acupuncture, full ice baths) and good old fashioned trips down to the beach. Advertising, social media and first-hand accounts can make the recovery picture very blurry, and people often get caught up with the latest and greatest technique, without covering the basics. This article is here to tell you the science behind recovery, where it all fits into the picture, and to help you make better informed choices when programming your recovery.

Pic 1- Len Dawson Smoking at Halftime of Superbowl 110

“Formula 1, the fastest sport on earth, is won by those who learn how to take pit stops most effectively. The same principles apply to humans” Professor Damian Hughes3

Hans General adaptation theory

I want to explain a bit of the background behind recovery and adaptation. Back in 1946, a man named Hans Selye, who theorised exercise to be a “stressor”, which in large doses, could harm or kill an organism1 . He wanted to observe what a sub-lethal dose of training would do, and what happened within the cell. His premise was that when a stress (exercise) is applied (to a human), the response will be an adaptation (increase in fitness/strength/power etc.) to compensate for the next stressor2 . Essentially, your body says ‘oh damn that was stressful. I need to prepare myself for the next time, so I can better handle it’. If the stress is too great, the body will not be able to adapt, and will go into exhaustion, or over training. Below is a nice graphic demonstrating how this theory plays out

Fig 1. “Stages of General Adaptation Syndrome”, Richard, R. 20166

Recovery Pyramid

Now you can understand why recovery is so important. While the training is the stressor, where we prompt an adaptation response, the recovery phase is where the actual adaptation occurs. It therefore represents half of our training emphasis, at least according to our body. It is literally where we improve, where we get better, and neglecting it is hurting athletic progress no matter how you cut it. Many people under-utilise this, and are only looking forward to the next training session, or how to next to work their bodies, without understanding how much benefit a proper recovery plan can help.

“Failure to recover sufficiently from the continuous demands and stress of life, training and competition can lead to a cycle of impaired performance and accumulated fatigue” Nick Grantham3

So what now? I’ve explained the why, but I have not stepped into the how. Perhaps somewhat unsurprisingly, recovery can be a very simple thing. Put as simply as I can: Eat well, sleep better and look after your body & mind. This obviously glosses over a lot when it comes to how to do so, but when we observe the recovery pyramid3 , it becomes clear why we need the basics to become our major focus.

Fig 2. “The Recovery Pyramid v.2” Grantham, N. 20133

“But what about ice baths? And Hydrotherapy? Skins?! Have I been wasting my time?” Short answer, no. These will not necessarily harm performance, but if we are discussing the most effective ways to recovery from performance, nutrition, body management and sleeping form the pillars of our success. It is easy to get caught up in the latest craze, as we have seen people do time4 after time5 , which is not to say they don’t work, but they tend to be minimally effective, and very expensive, where the most effective tools are always at our disposal.

“Unless you get the basic pillars of recovery right (Sleep, nutrition, hydration) the benefits to be gained from any other modalities, no matter how hi-tech, will be minimal” Chris Barnes Msc3

Practical Applications

So where does this leave us? We know we need to sleep better, eat better, utilise body management techniques, periodise & plan our training with ongoing monitoring, and throw in some hydrotherapy or icing when required, but how do we do that? The aim of this article was to explain the why and how of recovery, so practical applications for each recovery method are beyond the scope of this article. However, I will provide some basic recommendations, and provide links and information to further research areas where required.


  • Get Minimum 7-8 hours of sleep
  • Minimise screen time before bed 3,8
  • Have a bed time “Routine” 3,8,9
  • Nap between sessions or in the afternoon7


  • Eat enough Protein (………)
  • Healthy servings of Fruit & Veg 3
  • Cut down on processed foods & Refined Sugars 3
  • Drink plenty of Water!
  • Seek further advice- Nutrition is highly personal and dependant on the person

Body Management

  • Passively rest
    – Listen to music
    – Meet with friends
    – “Chill Out”
  • Actively rest
    – Massage
    – Walk the dogs
    – Flexibility & Mobility Training

Periodisation & Monitoring

  • Plan rest days & Recovery sessions
  • Change training based on performance and Fatigue levels
  • Monitor physical and mental readiness
  • Avoid over-training!

This is a very simple approach, with some basic tips which will hopefully go a long way. It is not always about trying to latest and greatest thing, but often about mastering and manipulating the key fundamentals which not only gives us the greatest benefit, but allows us to reap marginal gains from alternative therapies like hyrdro/cryotherapy.