When I first learned to foam roll, I wondered, “How did I live 20 years without this?” It was like getting a cell phone. I used to be fine without one, now I wonder how I functioned without it. That’s pretty high praise for something as simple as hard-packed foam in the shape of a cylinder or ball…

Today I want to share, in my experience, two very common mistakes about foam rolling that will help you get more out of it. One of them I was notorious for doing myself until I learned otherwise.

First, what is foam rolling? There are many kinds of foam rollers, but typical types are hard-packed foam (so, it is stiff, but has a little bit of give. More than, say, trying to roll on a PVC pipe…) cylinders or balls of varying sizes. Some may be made of hard rubber, or even have textures on it for deeper pressure on where you roll.

Second, why bother with foam rolling? What is the benefit? Well, have you ever had a chronic discomfort in your body you just couldn’t get rid of? Perhaps you try to stretch it out, and it feels better for a short while, but then quickly reverts back to how it was? Foam rolling can help that – loosening/freeing parts of your body that are chronically tight. It’s like giving yourself an elbow message whenever and wherever you need it. It may not sound like much, but doing this will increase your range of motion, flexibility, reduce chronic pain/discomfort, improve sleep, and more. For me, personally, it’s helped reduce lower back pain (due to tight glutes) and sleep (due to chronic discomfort from tight legs and shoulders).

Here are some reasons why I love foam rolling and think everyone could benefit from it:

So what are the two big things to NOT do when foam rolling? (There certainly are more than two things to consider, but these have been the biggest two for me that stand out).

Note – I wanted to write about these two things, because it’s actually quite common to see folks doing this on free videos online, and I find it can be very misleading.

Mistake #1 – Just rolling around on the foam roller.

Fortunately, this is not an unsafe mistake. It’s more that you just don’t get the full benefit the foam roller can offer. It’s tempting to want to just roll back and forth on the muscles in your body that feel tight and need loosening. But it’s not actually about rolling. The rolling is more about slowly rolling near the areas that are tight, finding where those tight spots are, and then staying on it for a while (I like to do a slow count to 10 so I don’t overdo it). Then, you can slowly roll around it, and move to the next spot. What is not effective is just rolling back and forth, back and forth. It might feel kind of good – but it’s not really doing anything for you. You want to let the foam roller “dig in” a bit to those tight spots to loosen them up. Certainly, you don’t want to apply so much pressure that it’s painful enough to say “ouch”. If you do apply too much pressure, it’s not the end of the world – it’s something you’ll get a feel for with practice.

Mistake #2 – Rolling on incorrect areas – mainly non-muscle.

Earlier, I said I was notorious for one of these two mistakes. This is the one – namely when I rolled on my IT band. I’ll get to that in a second. So, when you foam roll, you want to stick to areas of muscle tissue and NOT joints, bony areas, tendons, etc. So, if your knee is having problems, don’t go directly on/around the knee – go for the muscles supporting the knee below and above it. Or, if you’re rolling on your back and around your shoulders, try to avoid the shoulder blades themselves. Instead, work the muscles around it. Fortunately, again, if you do happen to do this, it’s not the end of the world, but over a longer period of time wouldn’t be good. 

Back to the IT band, this was/is a very popular area to roll, but it is NOT a muscle. It’s a large tendon-like structure in the body (running along the side of your upper leg, from hip to the knee. Initially, it may feel good, but you’ll find it feels “tight” again and again, and you may actually inflame it if you keep directly rolling on it. So, in this example, you’d want to roll on the muscles that surround the IT band – your quads, and hamstrings.

That’s it. If you keep in mind those two mistakes above, you’ll be well on your way to more constructive foam rolling results and technique.

To you health and wellbeing,

Lead Health Coach, Dan Tribley

EPIC Functional Medicine