Foam rolling is a great tool that can systematically address the soft tissue restriction and help you perform some basic maintenance of yourself in the comfort of your home. However, is it possible to overdo and foam roll too much?
Generally, you can foam roll too much when you spend a long time on one specific spot. Extended pressure on the tissue can elicit myoglobin from the muscles and creates muscle soreness, similar to the DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness or PMSM (post-massage soreness and malaise).
Just like an exercise or a massage, foam rolling can make your life better. But when done for too long, it can leave you with unnecessary discomfort.
What Happens If You Foam Roll Too Much?
When you foam roll too much your muscles can start to release the creatine kinase and myoglobin that can elicit discomfort and pain. Short and intermittent foam rolling between the workout sets, or at the end of the day is a better way to facilitate the benefits.
To help you understand this concept better, I will compare foam rolling with exercise and deep tissue massage, as they all experience similar effects on the muscle.
Foam rolling, like any other soft tissue mobilization technique, requires mechanical pressure on the muscle tissue.
If the pressure is too high, or the time is way too long, the muscle fibers will create microdamage and respond by releasing myoglobin and other inflammatory reactions. That can lead to even more stiffness and soreness (source).
The same thing happens when we go on the extensive exercise session (long-distance run or 90-minute Bootcamp class). The repetitive stress on the muscle during the hardcore workout causes microscopic muscle damage (source).
As a result, muscle release avalanche of chemical compounds like:
- serum creatine kinase
- serum myoglobin
- serum C-reactive protein
All those inflammatory compounds lead to muscle soreness and stiffness. And here’s the kicker. Your body can easily eliminate those compounds from the system. That’s called recovery.
But when all you do is training hard with high-intensity every day (or foam rolling too long), the release of those compounds exceeds recovery, and you feel non-stop sore.
Related article: 6 Principles Of Foam Rolling For Knee Pain
Can Foam Rolling Damage Muscles?
In general, foam rolling is safe but prolonged and extensive overuse can lead to muscle damage and myofascial pain. Small and consistent work of 10-15 minutes per day is enough to create a significant change and restore complete range of motion.
The same with deep tissue massage. A short one-hour treatment can help you to relieve muscle tension and pain.
However, prolonged or repeated massage treatments can cause more harm than good. That is called the hormesis effect (source).
The hormesis effect is a way to describe a benefits (or drawbacks) from a dose of a stimulus.
A short and infrequent dose (short workout, massage, intermittent fasting, foam rolling) is positive. It is also popularly called good stress.
Good stress pushes you out of your comfort zone, but in a good way. It challenges you, triggers positive change, helps us be stronger and grow.
And as long as you have the time to recover from that stress, you’re fine.
Foam rolling gives you (your muscle tissues) that good stress.
Is Foam Rolling Good or Bad?
Good foam rolling practice is typically
- over quickly (a matter of minutes)
- leaves you better than you were before
Your muscles should feel less tense and more flexible.
On the other side, prolonged and excessive foam rolling (just like a massage) diminishes the benefits and elicits discomfort.
Once you go too much, too long, or too often, your ability to recover goes down.
Bad foam rolling practice is typically:
- last for too long
- doesn’t feel right or doesn’t create any change
- leaves you worse than you were before
Here’s the thing.
There is no straight line that separates good foam rolling from bad foam rolling practice. Just like with exercise. It is all dependent on your individual recovery ability, age, fitness level, the current range of motion, injury, muscle tension, pain tolerance, etc.
There are no formal guidelines on how much is too much or how much is not enough. That’s why you should experiment and find out what dose works best for you. But you need to know what to look for.
So let me give you an easy-to-follow model of how you can build your own foam rolling program that will help you get better.
Related article: 9 Easy Ways To Roll Out Sore Muscles Without a Roller
How Much Foam Rolling Should I Do?
You should do around 10-15 minutes a day of foam rolling to reclaim the restricted range of motion, work on the muscle tension, or down-regulate after a long day. Doing short but consistent work will create better adaptations and can improve the quality of your soft tissues.
Foam rolling applies gentle pressure on the soft tissue which reduces the stiffness in the muscle. Short-term mechanical pressure triggers the parasympathetic response that desensitizes the muscle tissue and results in a relaxation response that leads to an increased range of motion.
Here are the basic rules that you need to be mindful of before you start foam rolling to help you distinguish between normal tissue and muscle tension.
No pain with compression
Normal tissue has no pain once you press on it. You can have people walking on your quads, calves, hamstrings, or lats and it should like a relaxing experience (think Thai massage or Shiatsu massage).
However, if you feel pain during the compression, it means that you just localized a trigger point (sensitive or stiff spot). A trigger point is nothing else than an area of the muscle tissue that is tight. And once you apply the pressure on that area, tension will elicit pain.
It’s kind of like a self-diagnostic tool. You can literally use the foam roller to self-evaluate if the tissue is normal.
- No pain – normal tissue
- Pain – muscle tension
It’s very straightforward.
Your job with the foam roller is to stay on that spot and apply gentle pressure until you can feel you’ve made things better.
TIP: You want to stay on that spot until you make a change, or until you stop seeing any more progress. It usually can take from 1-3 minutes.
No stiffness with compression
Sometimes we can have no pain during the foam rolling but the tissues don’t feel right. It feels stiff and tense. That is another indicator that you just localized an area of restriction.
Stiffness can also manifest in limited range of motion (you cannot bend your knee or touch your shoulder).
Also bear in mind that different diameters and materials of a foam roller will have a different impact on the pressure.
Soft foam rollers may elicit no change, but once you use massage ball or PVC pipe, you start to notice radical change.
You should breathe normally
During the foam rolling on the normal soft tissue, you should be able to breathe normally. Some degree of discomfort can happen, depending on the quality and suppleness of your tissues, and also on your pain tolerance.
However, if foam rolling hurts to the point where you have to hold your breath and you get all tight up, you know you find the problematic spot.
Breathing is also a great diagnostic tool to see if you’re expressing a full range of motion during the exercise. If you are in the squat position or have your hands over your head and you struggle to breathe, this means something is restricting your range of motion.
Add contract-relax method
The fastest way to reduce the tensions and get rid of the trigger point is to apply the PNF technique called contract-relax. PNF stands for proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation and is basically the connection between the muscle and the brain (source).
Contract relax helps you to facilitate change faster by peak contraction of the muscle that you work on (5 seconds ON) followed by the complete relaxation time (10 seconds OFF).
Doing a repeated cycle of contract relax will desensitize that painful spot and help you make a more robust effect, without spending much time on the roller.
Here’s how it works:
- Lay down and position the foam roller under the muscle that you want to work on.
- Roll until you find the trigger point.
- Once you found the spot peak squeeze the muscle that you foam roll (mobilize).
- High it for 5 seconds
- Relax completely for 10 seconds on the spot while breathing normally
What you will notice is this sensitive spot is letting go. It literally feels like it melts under the roller. Once you repeated this cycle 5-10 times, hunt for another spot.
- Spend max 10-15 minutes per day
Related article: Foam Rolling: Why it hurts & How to make it less painful
How Many Times A Day Should You Foam Roll?
In general, foam rolling can be used 2-3 times a day because it can work as a tool to increase range of motion, release the tension from the muscles, and down-regulate at the end of the stressful day by activating the parasympathetic response.
This means foam roller is like a swiss army knife. It can have multiple functions. And as you can imagine, depending on what you are using the foam roller for, it will dictate how often you should be doing it.
Foam roller can be used for:
- Warm-up tool
One of the most popular ways to use a foam roller is warm-up before training session. Here you can spend around 5 minutes to cover all major muscle groups, or if you’re doing certain workout (leg day, push day) focus on those muscles.
- Mobility tool
You can use it to improve the position of your workouts. This means if you do a squat and it doesn’t feel right, feel free to use foam roller in between your set and see if that made the difference.
- Cooldown tool
At the end of the HIIT session, you can give some love to your calves and hip flexors. This can enhance blood perfusion and helps to recover faster. 10-15 minutes max.
- Pain release tool
If you’ve spend all day at work, sitting, driving, carrying heavy objects, etc and you feel some twitch, use a foam roller to release the pain. Stay as long until you made the change. Typically 3-5 minutes per muscle.
- Self-diagnostic tool
Once a week you can hop on the roller and just cover the full body as a way to either relax and to self-evaluate your tissues. Remember that normal tissue should not feel painful to compress.
- De-stressing tool
Stress is omnipresent. And people have a poor model to down-regulate themselves at night. We are happy to drink several coffees and ramp up our fight or flight response. But to relax and destress, what do you do?
My favorite method for stress is to go for a hot stone or Thai massage. However, when you don’t have anyone available, you can use foam rolling.
- Proprioception tool
Proprioception is the ability to perceive your position in the space. It’s like being able to touch your ears or stand on one leg while having your eyes closed.
There are several receptors, mainly in the skin and muscles, that send the signals to the body about our own “position” in the space. People who don’t stimulate those receptors aka do not move around or do not apply any pressure may have a low sense of proprioception (source).
- Rounded back without a sense of ability to reclaim proper form
- Unable to squeeze given muscle (glutes, abdominals)
That usually happens as we age or after some type of trauma. Any form of soft tissue work (massage, foam rolling) can help with improving this proprioception ability. That’s why people after they had a massage or after their roller on their back now all of a sudden can feel their back is rounded.
Woah! That’s a lot.
To learn more about how often should you use a foam roller, check out my related article
Related article: How often should you foam roll.
As you can see, there is a fine line between doing what’s right and doing too much. Foam rolling can be used for a variety of things, but it also can be overused.
And many times I see people who have a problem with a foam roller is because they don’t have a clear model of what to follow.
So use those tools and tips to create your own model of utilizing the foam roller in a way that fits your lifestyle and remember that the difference between good stress and bad is your individual ability to recover.