Foam rolling and self massage is the second of our two part series on sports massage. The first part looked at the science behind the benefits and some techniques of sports massage. Check it out here.  According to research, self-massage can help improve flexibility when it is performed 3-5 times a week. It also helps recovery and can reduce pain.

From observing the before and after reslt of clients who have undertaken a programme of foam rolling I would be an advocate of self-massage. I can definitely feel a difference in tone in the muscle group being worked, it feels a lot less tight, more supple and with less tight bands.

Foam Roller

Foam rollers are useful to carry out broad massage to large areas of muscle groups like the back, quads, hamstrings, and gluteals. You use your body weight to apply massage like pressure as you roll up and down on a roller. They work best on muscles that you can apply a good bit of body weight through such as the quads. Foam rollers can vary. They are commonly solid cylinders of foam or plastic and some have additional knobbles on them to dig in a little more into the muscle. Some of the rollers made of foam can indent over time, whereas the plastic rollers may have a longer shelf life but are typically more expensive. If you travel for work or sport, rollers that have a hollow centre are a good purchase as you can stuff items like socks into the centre saving space in your suitcase.

Massage Balls / Tennis Ball

When a more focused massage is required, or to put pressure on a particular “knot” or trigger points of pain, then a tennis ball, hockey ball or a dedicated massage ball is very effective. This is often great for the gluteals or specific spots like between the shoulder blades. You sit on them for your gluteals. When lying on your back and place them under knots in your lower back and wait for them to release. Or you can perform self massage by standing against a wall and placing a ball between the wall and your back to target specific trigger points.

Massage sticks

Massage sticks are great for muscle groups that are hard to get much pressure through when using a foam roller like the calf, or arm. Because they are narrower than foam rollers they apply good force to the muscle with just a small amount of body weight. They are also good options for massage the quads. Small and narrow they don’t take up much room in a gym bag which is handy for post training self massage.

Whats the optimal duration to massage a muscle?

There is no defined best practice regarding how long to self-massage for.  Different studies have used different protocols but positive effects have been found using 3×20 seconds massages and 3×60 second massages. One study found that pain increased as the massage progressed over time so shorter more frequent durations may be more tolerable on very tender muscles. Regardless, work within pain tolerance levels.

How to foam roll.

Regardless of  your sport the muscles tend to be massage the same way. You can choose to move up and down on a foam roller in large movements, or tend to do small movements back and forth over a particularly tight or tender area. For very local points of tenderness for example in the gluteals, tennis balls or similar can provide very focal pressure by leaning the body area onto the tennis ball.


For cyclists and runners consider rolling your quads (front of thigh), hamstrings (back of thigh), gluteals and lower back. Use a tennis ball to address between the shoulder blades if you get pain here from bike position or from sitting over a computer at work. Many people complain they can’t get enough pressure through the foam roller to get a good massage in their calf or hamstring. If this is case then cross one leg over the other to apply more body weight down through the muscle. Use a massage stick to target your calfs if you have access to one. It can be more effective that a foam roller. However if you don’t have one, use the roller anyway.

Back and upper body

For tightness in the back I find that foam rolling gives a generally loosen out but then use a tennis ball to massage into local points that are sore. When massaging the upper back bring your arms across your chest to move the shoulder blades out of the way.

For athletes with an upper body sport massage the back as above but also consider using a tennis ball on shoulder blade to catch the muscles here. When lying on your side you can use the foam roller to target the lats and teres muscles just under the arm pit. Check out the photos as it’s sometimes easier to see an example than to explain it in words.

NOTE: Keep your self massage tools on the muscles, don’t roller over bony parts of you that are not covered by muscle, e.g. knees, elbows, spine. This can be very uncomfortable and may cause injury.

Foam rolling videos

For the lower body. runnersworld magazine has a great set of videos. You don’t need to be a runner to watch them, they are for anyone who wants to foam roll their legs.

If you are a cycling fan see this video from Garmin Sharp featuring Dan Martin in 2013.

These are three great upper body videos for the upper body, the Lats using a foam roller, the lats and external rotators using a lacrosse ball and the pectorals. Be careful with the pectoral self massage as it can be very tender and leave you with a bruised feeling if you over do it. If you are very slim take great care with this exercise to avoid bruising your ribs.

Review of foam rolling research

Science in Sport did a good review of the scientific research around foam rolling. It is easy to read so you’d like to find out more check out their review here.

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