Foam Rolling’s Secret Perk? Doing It *Before* Exercising Makes Your Workouts More Effective

Photo: Stocksy/Nicola Suttle
These days, "foam rolling" and "recovery" have practically become synonymous—even though you can use your foam roller for an actual workout, too. But what you may not know is that everyone's favorite recovery tool has another important function aside from helping soothe sore muscles after a workout: It can be used before your workout to make your time on the mat even more effective.

Benefits of foam rolling before a workout

Foam rollers aren’t just for working out the kinks in your tight muscles. Foam rolling before your workout can improve your performance. Here are a few reasons why:

Experts In This Article
  • Corinne Croce, DPT, physical therapist and co-founder of Body Evolved, a stretching and physical therapy studio in New York City
  • Dariusz Stankiewicz, co-founder of Body Evolved, a stretching and physical therapy studio in New York City
  • John Burns, CEO of Tom Brady’s wellness company, TB12.
  • Sara Hayes, founder of the running company Mindful Miles

Improves muscle recruitment

The process, referred to by some trainers as "neuropriming," helps warm up your muscles so that they are fully relaxed before you start working them. That way, when you enter into your workout, they'll be able to fully contract or extend—allowing you to reap the full benefits of the work you're putting in.

Basically, it's giving you a full muscle pump instead of the limited one that tight muscles restrict you to. "That's 100-percent recruitment of the muscle," explains John Burns, CEO of Tom Brady's wellness company TB12. "Imagine you're doing your quad exercises with 90 percent of the muscle: How much more stable could you be, how much more powerful could you be, how many more reps could you do [if you were using all 100 percent]?" I mean, a lot.

Increases circulation

In addition to getting more of your blood pumping, foam rolling before your workout decreases tension and primes the neuromuscular system by driving the parasympathetic nervous system to maximize movement capabilities, explain Dariusz Stankiewicz and Corinne Croce, the team behind New York City's boutique physical therapy studio Body Evolved.

It turns out that the increased blood flow may support postexercise recovery—a bonus for athletes of any type.

Better range of motion

Taking a few minutes to ride it out on the foam roller can enhance your range of motion—or how far you can move your joints in different directions. Why does your range of motion matter?

Improved range of motion can positively impact running performance by enhancing biomechanics and efficiency, according to Sara Hayes, the founder of the running company Mindful Miles. "A greater range of motion allows for more optimal stride frequency, improving running economy," she says. (Running economy refers to how efficiently your body uses oxygen while running, which can affect your endurance and performance.) "Efficient movement patterns reduce energy expenditure, enabling runners to maintain a faster pace with less effort.”

More efficient movements and quicker speed allow you to go further and crush your goals. “Outside of running mechanics, increased flexibility can contribute to better joint mobility, reducing the risk of injuries associated with restricted movement,” Hayes says.

Does foam rolling affect running gait?

Runners, are you holding off because you’re afraid that rolling sesh will throw off your stride? Seems there’s no reason to worry about that.

Researchers tested this out by having runners complete 12 minutes of foam rolling, followed by a fatiguing 30-minute run on the treadmill. Their running gait remained the same whether they foam rolled or not. Your running mechanics will likely only benefit from proper warm-up and foam rolling.

How long should you foam roll?

Taking 30 seconds to two minutes on each muscle group has been proven effective at increasing range of motion and performance. Longer isn’t necessarily better and it is possible to overdo it.

“While foam rolling is an excellent tool to add to your routine, like anything, too much of it can be a bad thing," Hayes cautions. "Overuse may cause muscle soreness or irritation, and applying excessive pressure could result in bruising or damage to soft tissues."

Foam rolling may be a bit uncomfortable at first, but it shouldn’t be painful. Hayes says, “It's important to listen to your body and avoid rolling over bony areas, joints, or areas with acute pain," Hayes says. "During foam rolling, try to avoid distractions such as your phone or TV and focus on your breath. Typically when we hold our breath it's our body's way of telling us something is too intense.”

She adds that signs that you've done enough include a feeling of increased muscle suppleness, reduced tension, and improved range of motion without excessive soreness.

Bottom line: A pre-exercise foam roll is definitely worth starting your workout five minutes earlier—for the sake of your muscles and your personal records.

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