A foam roller. (Bigstock)

Kneading, rolling, stretching. No, the topic is not how to create the best puff pastry, but rather how to achieve the happiest muscles.

Massage, foam rolling and stretching are all prescribed for muscle recovery. But how do they relate to one another, and what works best and when? We asked some local experts to weigh in.

“I think they complement each other,” says Eric Casper, a Washington-based, USA Triathlon-certified triathlon coach.

Casper, whose athletes often train up to 20 hours a week, uses a combination of foam rolling and stretching along with icing (which can reduce inflammation) to prevent muscle soreness and increase range of motion after running, cycling and swimming.

Foam rolling:

Foam rolling is a muscle-releasing technique in which you roll the tight muscle on a hard, cylindrical foam roller to increase blood flow to the area and reduce inflammation.

It can be beneficial to get an introduction to foam-rolling — just like traditional stretching — from a personal trainer or other fitness professional to make sure you are using the foam roller effectively.

Liz Puloka, a licensed massage therapist in Washington, says she finds foam rolling particularly useful for releasing the muscles of the upper back and outer thigh, areas that can be tricky to access through stretching alone. Other areas, such as shins, might be more accessible through stretching.

Massage therapy

“If you can afford it, great,” Casper says. “Not only does [massage] give relief and active release, but you are working with a professional who can help create awareness about your body.” If you can’t afford a professional massage, he suggests having a partner help knead out your tight muscles, though it probably won’t be as effective.


Stretching works to counteract tightness and tension built up in muscles that have been working “by physically pulling the muscle back into its ideal ‘default’ or relaxed state,” says Puloka, adding that she, like Casper, recommends that clients combine foam rolling with stretching whenever possible. Stretching — both dynamic (involving movement) and static — increases blood flow and range of motion, which helps joints stay aligned and muscles move more effectively.

Bringing them together:

“These three forms of tissue therapy all complement each other in that they all contribute to and encourage healthy tissue, and should be used in conjunction as much as possible,” Puloka says.

But in what order should they be done after a workout?

Michele Masset, a D.C. physical therapist and owner of Masset Acupuncture & Physical Therapy Center, says it makes the most sense to first get a massage or foam-roll and then stretch.

“It’s like priming the muscles for the stretching,” Masset says. “The massage or foam rolling helps release the muscle fibers and increases the blood flow. The next step should be to stretch.”

But, she cautions, these three therapies only work for basic muscle maintenance. They don’t go to the root of chronic muscle tightness.

“Where you feel the problem is not necessarily where you have the problem,” Masset says. “A tightness in your calves can be caused by a lack of foot mobility and strength.”

In other words, no matter how much you massage, foam roll and stretch, you won’t improve chronic muscle tightness unless you understand and address body imbalances, Masset says.

Jodi Barth, a physical therapist and co-owner of the Center for Facial Recovery in Rockville, agrees and says she hopes she and other physical therapists can help educate people on how to create better balance in the body to prevent — rather than treat — chronic tightness and soreness.

“You have to ask, why are you tight to begin with?” Barth says. “It’s usually a weakness on one side that creates a tightness on the other.”

In other words, strength training and good posture can be just as important as foam rolling, massage and stretching to prevent tightness.

“Once you have knowledge of the body,” Casper says, “you can reach into your toolbox and pick what you need that day, that moment . . . whatever it is your body needs to recover.”

Boston is a fitness trainer and freelance writer. She can be found at www.gabriellaboston.com.

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