There’s an important reason you need a proper cool-down after you work out. “During exercise, you really open up your arteries and veins because your body is trying to get as much blood as possible to your muscles,” explains Tom Myers, an integrative manual therapist and director of Anatomy Trains. Afterwards, there’s extra fluid in the muscle tissues that needs to get back to the liver for processing—you don’t want it hanging around in there. “Walking, light stretching, or doing some slow squats have been time-honored methods of doing this,” he says.
The foam roller, however, might not be the best way to get the effect. The theory behind foam rolling post-workout is this: “You’re squeezing the fluids out of the tissue manually, and that means that you’re squeezing out all of the cytokines (the leftovers of muscle action),” Myers says. “That would get them into the lymph and then back into the blood. So the question is whether pressing something over your skin—which has to press through the skin and the fat layer—would get to the lymphatics.” As of now, there’s no real proof that this is possible.
Still, there are times when foam rolling really makes sense. Firstly, when there’s a particular area that feels tight or sore: “Foam rolling can help to loosen up what people commonly call knots, trigger points, muscle tension, sometimes scarring or fascial densification,” Myers says. So rather than simply starting from your calves and work your way up (what most people do after a workout), do a body scan and determine where you have tightness, soreness, or discomfort. Then, concentrate on rolling out those areas slowly. Sure, you can do this post-exercise but do it after you’ve already cooled down with some walking or dynamic stretching.
Another time a roller can really come in handy is when you’re traveling. Myers recommends utilizing a foam roller to deal with any stiffness or soreness caused by prolonged sitting. “I carry a six-inch foam roller with me on long flights,” he says. “I just roll up and down in my hotel room and I feel much better afterwards.”
The bottom line: “You should be doing foam rolling when it feels fun,” Myers says. “If it gets boring and you wonder what you’re doing it for, then stop. Nobody rolled a tree branch over their body ten thousand years ago.” Just make sure you’re prioritizing other regeneration techniques.