Why Does Foam Rolling Hurt? And Why It's a Good Thing

Why Does Foam Rolling Hurt? And Why It's a Good Thing

Written by Nic Bartolotta

Nic Bartolotta is a physical therapist and holistic health practitioner. He holds a Master of Physical Therapy (MPT) degree from Cal State University - Long Beach and has worked with hundreds of professional athletes from the MLB, NFL, NBA, and NHL. Nic is known for his expertise in injury prevention, rehabilitation, and sports performance enhancement. He specializes in myofascial release techniques to address soft tissue restrictions. He is also the Chief Clinical Officer of Rolflex.

Ever winced in pain while foam rolling and wondered why it hurts so much? The good news is, you're not alone, and you’re likely doing nothing wrong. We’re going to explain the science behind your discomfort, distinguishing good and bad pain, when you should and shouldn’t foam roll, and more. You’ll gain insights into the best practices & self-massage techniques so that you can safely integrate foam rolling into your daily routine. 

What is foam rolling?

Foam rolling is a popular self-myofascial release technique used to eliminate soreness, improve flexibility, and treat injuries. It involves applying pressure to specific points on muscles to address tightness, break down adhesions, and release trigger points. 

Benefits of foam rolling

Despite the initial discomfort, foam rolling offers a range of benefits. When used properly, you can target tight muscles and adhesions, releasing tension, promoting muscle health, and enhancing your overall fitness.

One primary advantage of foam rolling is the accelerated recovery between workouts. It boosts blood circulation in muscles, delivering vital nutrients and oxygen. Furthermore, it alleviates muscle soreness, specifically delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), by breaking up adhesions and trigger points. Rolling out is also an effective therapeutic technique for treating common injuries like IT band syndrome and runner's knee, facilitating healing and reducing inflammation.

Is foam rolling supposed to hurt?

When done properly, mild to moderate pain is a part of the foam rolling process. 

In order to break up adhesions and loosen trigger points, you must apply pressure to your muscles with the roller. This pressure is what causes the initial discomfort or pain, and is a natural response. The muscle is essentially stuck in a contracted position, unable to move through its full range of motion. And this pressure, which replicates a sports therapy massage, is the only way to fully extend the muscle. So though stretching may be a less painful alternative, it’s far less effective. 

However, it's crucial to differentiate between good pain and bad pain. Good pain signifies effective myofascial release, a return to normalcy as your pain & limited range of motion subsides. Bad pain is characterized by sharp or unbearable discomfort. This could be the result of too much pressure or a potential injury that may require further medical attention.  

Why does it hurt to roll out so bad?

Proper rolling should feel mildly uncomfortable as you apply pressure to the trigger point. That’s because traditional foam rolling places your entire body weight onto a small area of muscle. 

The discomfort experienced during foam rolling is actually what makes it so effective, because of its ability to break down adhesions and release trigger points. Adhesions form when muscle fibers and fascia bind together due to overuse, injury, or inactivity. And trigger points are hypersensitive spots around these adhesions which cause localized pain, tightness, and soreness. 

Applying pressure with a deep-tissue foam roller induces a localized stretch on muscle fibers and fascia, breaking up adhesions and releasing trigger points. This pressure activates nerve endings within muscle tissue, resulting in initial discomfort. But as the trigger points are released and adhesions are broken up, blood circulation to the area improves, promoting healing and reducing pain.

For most people, your pain should be mild to moderate. The level will depend on how sore or tight you are. And if you foam roll consistently, your pain will decrease over time as your body adapts. But if you push your body past its normal capacity or forget to warm up, you’ll be sore regardless. In these cases, your pain will be greater as cramps, soreness, and tightness set in. Despite the added pain, it’s still an effective treatment to return your body to normal. 

If you experience pain that makes it extremely difficult or impossible to apply pressure with a roller, something is wrong. This pain is likely the result of: 

  • Improper form
  • Applying too much pressure
  • Rolling over or too close to joints
  • Rolling directly over severe injuries

We’ll cover more on these later. 

Is foam rolling good for sore muscles?

Yes, foam rolling is one of the best pre & post-workout techniques to reduce and even eliminate muscle soreness. By breaking up adhesions, it promotes blood flow which delivers essential nutrients to the area. This process accelerates recovery and reduces soreness, and specifically helps combat DOMS, even days after an intense workout. 

But it doesn’t just help reduce soreness after workouts. When done properly & consistently, it improves muscle flexibility and joint range of motion, preventing further soreness. 

Proper foam rolling techniques

Even though you’ll experience mild pain, there are ways to limit your discomfort. Here are the best ways to prevent injuries and maximize the benefits:

  1. Choose the right foam roller - Select an appropriate density (softness) based on your comfort level and targeted muscle groups, like the Rolflex

  2. Roll slowly & steadily -  Massage the area slowly, focusing on areas of tension and tightness, allowing the muscle to release gradually.

  3. Don’t overdo it - More is not always better. Rolling a certain muscle group for too long can actually do more harm than good. Limit your treatment to 30-60 seconds per muscle.

  4. Breathe -  Maintain deep, controlled breaths throughout to relax the muscles, which will enhance the trigger point release.

  5. Progress gradually - Start with gentle pressure and increase intensity over time as your body adapts.

  6. Be consistent - Foam roll daily before & after workouts for optimal muscle health and recovery.

How to alleviate discomfort

If you continue to experience discomfort, try applying less pressure or switching to a different roller. If you’re extra sore after a long run or heavy weightlifting session, wait 12-24 hours until trying again. Sometimes, your soreness may be so severe that the added pressure of a roller is too much; that’s okay. 

Common mistakes to avoid

Though foam rolling is generally straightforward, there are some common mistakes that many people make. And if you want to maximize your recovery, you should avoid them too.

Using too much pressure

Applying excessive pressure will worsen your pain and potentially lead to injury. Too much pressure may cause bruising, tissue damage, or worsen existing injuries. In some cases, it can trigger a protective muscle reflex, causing muscles to contract rather than release. Always start with gentle pressure, gradually increasing intensity as your body adapts. Listen to your body and recognize the difference between productive discomfort and harmful pain to ensure a safe & effective experience. 

Rolling over joints

Rolling over joints is not recommended during, as it will cause serious pain and injury. Direct pressure on joints can lead to discomfort, inflammation, and damage to the surrounding ligaments and tendons. If you’re using a foam roller to treat a joint injury like tennis or golfer’s elbow, you must target the muscles on either side of the joint rather than the joint itself. Maintain a safe distance of at least 2-3 inches. 

Rolling over severe injuries

Foam rolling serious injuries, such as severe muscle strains, broken bones, or torn ligaments, is not advised as it can exacerbate pain and injury. Applying pressure to these compromised areas will hinder the healing process, worsen inflammation, and prolong recovery time. 

Instead, consult a medical professional for appropriate treatment and rehabilitation guidance. Foam rolling should only be incorporated into recovery routines once approved by a healthcare expert, ensuring a safe and effective return to optimal muscle health.

When to seek medical attention

You should seek medical attention for foam rolling-related pain if you experience: 

  • Excruciating or persistent pain - Consult a healthcare professional if you experience severe or ongoing pain during or after foam rolling, despite modifying pressure and technique.

  • Inflammation or bruising -  Signs of injury or incorrect foam rolling technique may include excessive swelling, inflammation, or bruising in the rolled area, warranting a medical consultation.

  • Deteriorating symptoms - If pain or discomfort worsens instead of improving, it could signal an underlying issue requiring medical intervention.

  • Potential injury - For suspected injuries like torn ligaments, broken bones, or severe muscle strains, seek medical advice before continuing foam rolling.

If uncertain whether the experienced pain during foam rolling is normal or a cause for concern, it's essential to consult a healthcare professional.

Ultimately, pain is a part of foam rolling and it will hurt a bit. But it's a testament to its efficacy in reducing soreness & tightness. The best way to reduce this pain is by consistently foam rolling, using proper technique, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

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