Ah, foam rolling. After a challenging strength-training routine or long-distance run, nothing hurts so good like massaging your sore muscles with a firm foam cylinder. “Foam rolling can be a great stress reliever and post-workout cooldown, and it’s way cheaper than paying for a massage,” says Christel Oerum, a certified personal trainer and diabetes coach. Even better, the benefits of foam rolling span far beyond its feel-good factor: Using a foam roller can help improve your flexibility and joint range of motion, relax your muscles, ease soreness and pain, and even boost recovery, per the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM).
“However, the consensus on the benefits of foam rolling isn’t entirely clear, which most likely comes down to the underlying physiological mechanisms not having been thoroughly researched,” says Oerum. Beyond this, researchers have also just begun exploring how the timing of foam rolling (before, during or after your workout) might (or might not) lead to different effects. One key question: Could pre-workout foam rolling — a practice some personal trainers refer to as “neuropriming” — help boost your performance immediately afterward?
Here’s what we know so far, and tips on whether or not you should add a quick foam roll to your warmup routine, according to exercise science experts:
As you roll your muscles, gravity allows you to give yourself a deep massage on your muscles and the tough tissue surrounding them called the fascia. “This can help release very tight and often tender or painful areas, causing a ‘release’ in the bound-up fascia,” says Michele Olson, PhD, a senior clinical professor at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama. Olson adds that this is why foam rolling is also known as myofascial release. “The theory is that foam rolling increases the blood supply to your muscles and may lengthen the fascia so it is less constricting around your muscles, allowing for greater muscle elasticity.” That means you’re more comfortable and your freedom of movement is increased before you start working out.
Ideally, this increased range of motion allows you to kickstart high-agility exercises, like running or dancing, because your muscles are prepared to fully stretch and recoil as you speed up, stop, turn, jump and explode forward, says Olson. In this sense, warming up with foam rolling may also help prevent muscle injuries like strains and sprains.
Finally, there’s the mind-muscle connection: “Increasing blood flow and stimulating the muscles and fascia invokes a greater electrical connection between the brain, muscle neurons and muscle tissue,” says Olson. Foam rolling may “prime” your body physically and neurologically to get moving with smooth and precise muscle control.
While the complex mechanisms behind myofascial release are still somewhat theoretical, researchers have begun to look into the impact of pre-workout foam rolling. One 2019 meta-analysis in Frontiers in Physiology reviewed 14 studies for the effect foam rolling had on muscle flexibility as well as performance in tests of sprinting, jumping and strength. The bad news? “While the studies show a small improvement in flexibility and sprinting, it probably won’t be significant enough to make a difference for recreational athletes,” says Oerum. “However, if you’re looking to shave a few milliseconds off your sprint PR, foam rolling prior to your workout could give you that extra edge.” In terms of jumping and strength, the effects seem to be negligible, according to studies thus far.
So, is a foam rolling warmup actually worth your time? “At this point, it’s personal preference,” says Olson. “There is not a huge advantage to foam rolling before your workout, and you still have to do a regular warmup.” If you want to foam roll before exercise to ease any lingering aches and pains, go for it. Just make sure to follow your foam roll with a proper dynamic warmup, she advises.