Feeling the burn

While a good workout can make us feel great, the sore muscles that can follow a few hours or even a few days after exercise may not feel as good. Muscle soreness is uncomfortable and may slow you down during your next workout and in your daily life. To help reduce discomfort, experts such as Alice Holland, D.P.T., director of Stride Strong Physical Therapy in Portland, Oregon, recommend using a foam roller to massage and stretch tight muscles.

A foam roller is a cylinder of dense foam used in various activities ranging from physical therapy to Pilates. For stretching sore muscles, Holland recommends using a 6-inch by 36-inch round and firm foam roller to start. You can also use a half foam roller if you need more stability and prefer lighter pressure.

To relieve muscle soreness, Holland recommends the stretches and exercises discussed below.

Chest stretch

This pose stretches the pectoral muscles and can help improve rounded posture caused by tight chest muscles due to lifting weights or working at a computer:

  1. Lie down lengthwise on the foam roller, making sure your tailbone and head are both supported. Bend your knees to keep a neutral curve on your back.
  2. Spread your arms out to make a “T” shape, stretching your chest. Let gravity pull your shoulders back. If your arms tingle, move them down toward your sides until the tingling stops. Stay in the T position for 5-10 minutes.

Thoracic mobilization

  1. Lie down on your back with the foam roller placed horizontally behind your shoulders.
  2. Put your hands behind your head, or just one, if you need some stability. Use your feet to slowly roll over the foam roller, so the foam pushes against your spine. Stop rolling when you reach the bottom of your ribcage. You may feel your spine “crack” as you roll — this is normal. Roll the opposite direction, up to your shoulders, and repeat 10 times.
  3. When finished, stand up slowly and do not “snap” upright.

IT band stretch

The iliotibial, or IT, band is a fibrous tissue that runs from the hip to the knee. Lower body workouts, such as running and weightlifting, can cause soreness and tightness in the IT band. This stretch can help decrease knee pain and increase freedom of movement in the kneecap:

  1. Lie on one side with the foam roller horizontal and just under your hip, and support yourself by placing your other limbs perpendicular to the ground.
  2. Slowly roll over the foam roller and stop above the knee. Make sure you don’t roll over your hip or knee joints. Roll back and forth for one minute. You should feel this motion massage your IT band and quadriceps.

As this exercise massages deep tissues, it may be slightly painful.

Calf stretch

  1. Sit upright with the foam roller placed horizontally under your calves.
  2. Using your hands to push your hips off the ground, slowly roll your calves up and down over the roller for one minute.
  3. Use your hands to control the amount of pressure and shift your legs to stretch multiple angles.

Most people experience tight calves from activities such as prolonged standing, running, and even walking in high heels, according to Holland. “Tight calves can also progress to other issues such as plantar fasciitis and Achilles tendonitis, so this area should get due attention,” she says.

The “dead bug” exercise

Don’t let the name fool you — this exercise is all about strengthening the lower abdominal muscles. Keeping core muscles strong helps with posture and can improve your workout in other ways.

  1. Lie down along the foam roller the same way you did during the chest stretch, making sure your head and tailbone are supported. Bend your knees and raise both arms perpendicular to the floor.
  2. Keeping your arms straight but not locked, raise one arm above your head as you raise the opposite knee toward your chest. Keep your abs tight and stable. Return your arm and knee to starting position and repeat using opposite limbs for 3 sets of 10 repetitions.

“Don’t obsess over how high you can lift your arm and knee,” says Holland. “Even the smallest excursion [movement] works your abdominals well.” If balancing is too tricky, use a half foam roller.

Self-massage with a foam roller is a simple and convenient way to reduce discomfort post-workout and speed up your recovery time. If sore muscles slow you down, using a foam roller to stretch after workouts can help you bounce back. Please note that exercises such as the “dead bug” may initially increase soreness. Don’t do a stretch if it increases or causes intense pain.