Know When to Foam Roll vs When to Stretch

Know When to Foam Roll vs When to Stretch

Foam rolling and stretching are both helpful practices if you are an active person, but knowing when Foam Roll and when to Stretch can be tricky. There are general guidelines that will aid your athletic performance, but your body can also give you valuable information as to what it requires. You just need to understand what your body is telling you.

If you are generally looking to improve how your body feels, you’ll want to foam roll before your sport or activity, then stretch after. You never want to stretch muscles that are cold as that can lead to injury; you only want to stretch warm muscles. And no, sitting in a hot tub or taking a hot shower will not effectively warm and prepare your muscles the way that movement does. Stretching after your activity or sport is a way to cool down, and undo any accumulated tightness. You can warm up with dynamic stretching which puts your body through a range of motion, but static stretching should be saved for when your muscles are warm.

Foam rolling is something you can do relatively cold and is a technique that will prepare your body for movement. It’s a myofascial self-massage that gets blood flowing to the tissues and can release “knots” that impair proper flexion and extension.

Foam Rolling Tools

There are many types of rollers, balls, sticks, and other tools out there to use. If you tend to be more sensitive, using a softer roller to start will help. If you like firmer pressure, you’ll prefer a harder roller. Make sure that whatever tool you use, that it has some give. I don’t recommend using a baseball or golf ball for most body parts because they are too hard and will just cause bruising. You can use them on the soles of your feet as long as you don’t push too hard.

Foam Rollers vs. Balls

Foam rollers are helpful to cover a large area of your body, and are especially good for warming up. They are a “line” so can massage larger areas at a time. A ball is more specific since it’s a “point.” If you want to dig into a specific spot, like a “knot,” a ball is better tool.

Tiger Tails

These look a bit like rolling pins and are used similarly to foam rollers, but can be easier to use since you don’t need to hold yourself up. For anyone with wrist or shoulder problems, this a helpful tool to use as an alternative. Plus you can give a bit more pressure to areas like the hamstrings and calves which can be more challenging to roll effectively.

How to Foam Roll

There are many videos on YouTube that will guide you through a foam rolling sequence. Click here to watch one of mine. Foam rolling can be done with slow or quick movement: rolling slowly can be more intense but might give you more release, where as quicker rolling can be less intense for when your body is more sensitive. You can even pause at the area of strongest sensation and just breathe. This can help your body ease into the release. You can control both the speed and intensity of your rolling with your hands and/or feet. The more you “stand” on your hands and feet while rolling, the less pressure your body will feel against the roller. The more you sink into the roller, the more intense the sensation. Adjust according to your personal needs. Engaging your core while rolling can be helpful too, and will assist you warming up. I often feel warmer (and sweatier) after foam rolling.

Stretching 101

As I said earlier, it’s best to stretch when your muscles are already warm. A muscle stretches when you move its attachment points away from each other, and move in opposition to its contractive purpose. For example, the hamstrings’ job is to bend the knee and extend the hip, which it does when the muscle contracts (flexes). To stretch the hamstrings, you will straighten the leg, or unbend the knee, and flex the hip, although sometimes straightening the leg is enough. The hamstrings attach to the sit bones at the base of the pelvis at one end, and to the tibia and fibula at the other end. When you move the lower leg away from the pelvis, you will feel the hamstrings stretch.

How to Stretch

Stretching should provide a vague diffuse sensation that should feel good. If you feel a sharp sensation, or you feel the stretch at the joint, stop immediately. Stretching should be felt in the belly of the muscle, usually the biggest part, not at the attachment (at the joint). If you feel the stretch at the attachment, you could potentially cause yourself injury. See below, “When to Foam Roll and When to Stretch” for more on this.

Stretching should be done slowly and gently, never aggressively or with force, and definitely without bouncing. The body is like a rebellious teenager: when you force it to do something, it will fight back. But if you go slowly, give it some time, space, and breath, it will eventually do what you want it to do. It just might take longer than you would like. When you stretch, you will want to hold the stretch for 5-10 breaths. Less than 5 can be helpful if you feel tight and need to move, but if you are trying to improve your mobility, 5-10 is ideal. Longer than 10 may cause strain in the muscle, especially for an aging body. Longer is not necessarily better.

Use each inhale as an opportunity to listen to your body and feel what’s happening. Use each exhale as an opportunity to relax into the stretch. There is a natural relaxation response that happens, physiologically, with the exhale, so take advantage of that. The more you lengthen out your exhale through your nose, the more time you will have to relax into the stretch. As I said, don’t force the stretch, use the exhale to let go of what’s holding you back.

When to Foam Roll and When to Stretch

Sometimes our muscles feel tight and we want to do something about that, but when do we foam roll and when do we stretch? There are 2 kinds of “tight” muscles: muscles that are shortened, and muscles that are dysfunctional in some way. Shortened muscles need to be lengthened, i.e. stretched. Dysfunctional muscles (like when you feel the stretch at the attachment), usually need to be rolled. Fibers within a muscle group should run parallel to each other. When the muscle is injured, the fibers can become gnarled or “knotted” which impairs its ability to extend properly. when the belly of the muscle isn’t able to extend properly and you are trying to stretch, you will feel the pull at the weakest points: the attachment at the joint. In this case, foam rolling, or rolling on a ball will be more useful to work out the tight feeling. Roll the belly of the muscle, not the attachment. Just because you feel the sensation at the joint, doesn’t mean that is where the problem lies. Roll the belly of the muscle until you find the problem spot then hang out there for a bit until it loosens. Once you work out the knot, you will be better able to stretch.

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