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Foam rolling and stretching are two of the most effective ways to warm up and cool down your muscles. They also reduce the risk of injury, improve performance, and improve recovery times between workouts. And if you want to train at a high level, they need to be a part of your daily fitness routine. 

But with so much information surrounding the two, it’s hard to know which one to do and when. So what really is the difference between foam rolling and stretching? When’s the best time to do them? And is one really better than the other?

We’re going to explore the key differences between the two and help you understand how to use them to optimize your muscle growth, performance, and recovery. 

Benefits of foam rolling

Foam rolling is one of the best things you can do for your body as an athlete, helping to release knots in your muscles, reduce recovery time, and treat injuries. Foam rolling your muscles stimulates blood flow, priming them for a workout or providing them with the nutrients they need after intense exercise. It also helps to reduce soreness, loosening your muscles so they can relax and recover properly. And if you’re dealing with muscle or tendon issues, foam rolling is a great way to manage and treat your pain with active recovery, whether it’s before or after a workout.  

Benefits of stretching

Stretching lengthens your muscles to help you increase blood flow, reduce soreness, and extend your range of motion. It also helps to increase muscle mass and prevent training injuries by building long, strong muscles. 

There are two types of stretching – static and dynamic. Static stretches are those where you hold a muscle in a lengthened position for a set period of time, usually 15+ seconds. They are often performed post-workout to elongate the muscles and prevent tightness. Dynamic stretches are controlled light, controlled movements that circulate blood to your muscles and prepare them for activity, often performed before exercise.

Foam rolling vs. stretching: what’s the difference?

You’ll notice that foam rolling and stretching have similar benefits – that’s true. The way they differ is in how they work for your muscles. 

The primary difference between foam rolling and stretching is that foam rolling breaks down the myofascial tissue, a thin layer surrounding the muscle. This “myofascial release” is what helps reduce soreness, treat injuries, and improve recovery times, and is what occurs during a sports therapy massage. And though stretching does all of these things, no amount of stretching can break up the tissue. So in essence, stretching isn’t as effective as foam rolling at keeping you healthy. 

When to use each one? 

Foam roll and dynamic stretching to warm up

Foam rolling before a workout stimulates blood flow and loosens your muscles, preparing them for physical activity. And if you’re dealing with soreness, foam rolling eliminates knots in your muscles so that you can work through your full range of motion without straining your muscles. Similarly, if you’re managing a muscle or ligament injury like tendonitis, foam rolling helps to warm it up for exercise so that you don’t spend your entire workout wincing in pain. 

It’s ineffective to stretch cold muscles and can actually do more harm than good, so you should skip static stretching before exercise. If you try to stretch cold muscles, they’ll tighten even more, putting you at a greater risk of injury. 

To get the most out of your warmup, you should pair foam rolling with dynamic stretching. Activities like light jogging, jumping jacks, jump rope, and shoulder rotations are great ways to elevate your heart rate and circulate blood to your muscles and joints. Even dynamic versions  of static stretches are great for a warmup, like walking lunges, leg swings, and high knees. And if you’re warming up for a sport, sport-specific stretches warm up more than just your muscles. They prime your brain-muscle connection so that you can run, jump, or hit at your best. 

Start with a full body foam roll to loosen your muscles then move onto dynamic movements to elevate your heart rate – this combination will make sure you’re ready to go as soon as the whistle blows or your workout begins. 

Foam roll & static stretching to cool down

Your workout is over – you’ve exhausted your muscles and pushed your body to the limit. All you want to do now is lay down or hit the showers. But if you want to make it back to the gym tomorrow and not spend the next few days in agonizing soreness, you have to cool down your muscles.

Foam rolling is the most effective way to recover after a workout. It triggers myofascial release, breaking down the tough layer of tissue that surrounds your bones. Without foam rolling, this tissue builds up, making it difficult for your muscles to fully extend. By breaking it down, your muscles can extend and recover freely. 

Once this tissue breaks down, it has to go somewhere. It’s absorbed by the lymphatic fluid, the extra fluid that drains from cells and tissues but is not reabsorbed into the bloodstream. Lymphatic fluid builds up during exercise and pools in certain areas of your body like your hands & feet, making them appear swollen. Post-workout foam rolling helps circulate lymphatic fluid (and broken down myofascial tissue) out of those areas so that it can be processed by your lymphatic system.  

Foam rolling after exercise is often enough for most individuals to cool down and recover properly. But if you want to increase your mobility in certain parts of your body, you’ll have to pair it with static stretching. Static stretching lengthens muscles, further minimizing tightness in the coming days. It’s most effective after a workout done with controlled deep breathing that reduces full body tension and improves lung capacity. 

Foam rolling vs. stretching: which one is better?

It’s hard to find the motivation to warm up before early morning workouts or after long runs can be difficult. But if you want to perform at a high level for long periods of time, you need to take care of your body. But if you’re really pressed for time and only have a few minutes to fit one of them into your busy day, grab your foam roller and massage your muscles. You’ll reap greater benefits than stretching and often in less time. 

So to get the most out of your foam rolling routine, follow these simple steps. It shouldn’t take you more 10 minutes to foam roll your entire body: 

  • Spend 30-60 seconds on each muscle
  • Relax your muscles, don’t tense up as the roller passes over tense trigger points
  • Breathe deeply

Frequently asked questions

Is foam rolling better than stretching?

Foam rolling and stretching produce similar results but are fundamentally different techniques. But if you only have time for one, you should foam roll instead.

Can rolling out replace stretching?

Yes, foam rolling can effectively replace both static and dynamic stretching whether you are warming up or cooling down. But if you’re looking to improve your mobility beyond a normal range of motion, stretching is necessary to achieve those goals. 

January 25, 2023
December 12, 2022

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