A Physio's Guide to Foam Rolling

Foam rolling is a form of self-myofascial release using a rigid styrofoam cylinder of varying length and degrees of 'hardness'. You can also achieve the foam rolling effect with a rolling pin style device (like I use in the clinic) or a sometimes a hard rubber or rubber spiked therapy ball.

Foam rolling may be useful:

  • To improve exercise performance.
  • As an evening activity to unwind from stress and tension.
  • As an injury, self-treatment modality.
  • To help alleviate muscle tension and soreness after exercise.
  • As part of a morning exercise mobility programme.
  • To enhance mobility in nearby joints (but be careful, see below).

exercise 1284374 640Foam rolling may work by:

  • The activation of mechanoreceptors which trigger a pain modulatory effect within the central nervous system.
  • Increasing oxygen delivery and local circulation to the tissues.
  • Speeding up the removal of metabolic waste products in tired muscles.
  • Improving tissue hydration.
  • Enhancing the function of the lymphatic system.
  • Increasing parasympathetic tone (relaxation effect).

How to effectively foam roll.

  • Initiate rolling from the pelvis and working either upwards to the torso, and upper limbs, or down the legs.
  • Roll at a slow pace, moving in one direction for a few seconds, then in reverse for half that time, repeat.
  • Avoid directly rolling over your joints, work mainly on the fleshy muscles.
  • Focus on the muscles which are short and tight as apposed to elongated and weak; you may require an assessment to determine on which muscles to focus.
  • Sustained pressure at trigger points (tender irritable loci within a muscle which may radiate pain) for 30-60 seconds may be helpful to help 'deactivate' the trigger point. 
  • Keep breathing slowly and evenly for a 5-10 minute session.
  • Some manageable discomfort while foam rolling is acceptable, while very unpleasant or severe pain is not. Moderate the pressure to ensure you do not further aggravate muscles which may be inflamed or very sensitised. 

Warning! Be careful not to overstress your joints if trying to twist and contort yourself into a position to foam roll a particular muscle. I have treated many well-intentioned folks who, while trying to foam roll their gluteal muscles, injured their backs. Video's showing you what to do may be helpful, but remember the demonstrator may not have a history of back pain or hip arthritis. If needed, get specific individualised advice from an experienced physiotherapist about how best to foam roll your body.

Regular, short periods of foam rolling can have significant health benefits and contribute to your regular daily movement requirements. I have written before about the benefits of micro-workouts and foam rolling in another good micro-workout option if done safely and effectively. The key is to start slowly and gently, as well as seeking professional guidance if needed.

If you have any questions about foam rolling, please email us on This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

By Simon Coghlan MSc, BScPhysio, DipMedAc

Chartered Physiotherapist


Pearcey GE, Bradbury-Squires DJ, Kawamoto JE, Drinkwater EJ, Behm DG, Button DC. Foam rolling for delayed-onset muscle soreness and recovery of dynamic performance measures. Journal of athletic training. 2015 Jan;50(1):5-13.

Mohr AR, Long BC, Goad CL. Effect of foam rolling and static stretching on passive hip-flexion range of motion. Journal of sport rehabilitation. 2014 Nov 1;23(4):296-9.

Peacock CA, Krein DD, Silver TA, Sanders GJ, Von Carlowitz KP. An acute bout of self-myofascial release in the form of foam rolling improves performance testing. International journal of exercise science. 2014;7(3):202.

Sisson M. The Keto Reset Diet: Reboot Your Metabolism in 21 Days and Burn Fat Forever. Hardie Grant Publishing; 2017 Feb 1.


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