Compared to how popular ice baths are right now, a few years ago, foam rolling was at its peak.
One of my rather sporty friends was really into incorporating it into his post-workout routine.
Back then, I didn't know about foam rollers. I was curious how a hollow rubber tube could help the body recover.
Textured foam roller in use. Photo by Andrew Valdivia on Unsplash.
After we had a jog, I watched my friend use it to painfully foam roll his quads and calves. He apparently did that for up to 20 minutes back then post-workout.
After trying it, yep, it hurts, but benefits or not, it’s still not my thing.
Because how many people like getting on the floor to do what amounts to painful isometric bodyweight exercises after a workout?
(These days, I find that muscle massage guns are a way more convenient option, anyway.)
However, as opposed to ice baths, the effects of foam rolling are not as pronounced in the research, with most of its supposed gains being minimal:
When you see a bunch of low-single-digit percent benefits, good luck trying to make the most of that if you’re not an elite athlete who wants to squeeze out every last drop of potential.
Nonetheless, many people still swear by it, whether it's pre-rolling or post-rolling, which means using a foam roller before, or after a workout, respectively.
But what about both? Should you foam roller before, or after an ice bath?
Let's explore what science has found so far.
Ice baths and foam rolling compared (foam rolling basics)
First, let's take a closer look at these two recovery techniques.
Ice baths have been used for years by athletes to aid in recovery.
This technique, as we’ve explored in our other articles, involves sitting in a tub filled with cold water and ice at 10-15°C for a period of time, typically for 5-10 minutes.
The ice-cold water can help reduce inflammation and muscle soreness, and improve recovery time (aside from positive effects on your mind and wellbeing.)
Foam rolling, on the other hand, essentially has you use your partial body weight to roll on the foam roller, compressing and stretching out the muscles in that area.
It can also warm you up before you do any physical activity because it can get the blood flowing.
With this basic comparison of ice baths and foam rolling, you can start to imagine the differences of the effects of these two activities on your body.
So now let’s get to the main question, should you use a foam roller before, or after an ice bath?
Should I “roll out” before or after an ice bath?
Quick Answer: We recommend using a foam roller before you take an ice bath so that your body is in a more warmed up state before you take the cold plunge. Ice baths cause vasoconstriction, so your veins have less blood flow. Foam rolling after your body is “cold” and tight may have non ideal effects if you use foam rollers to stretch out your body. On the other hand, if you use foam rollers to warm up, it might be a relaxing way to end an ice bath session.
However, note that you might be prematurely lessening the ice bath’s positive effects if you immediately warm up after it by foam rolling or taking a hot shower.
Some athletes prefer to foam roll before an ice bath as a way to loosen up their muscles and increase blood flow. This can be particularly helpful for those who experience muscle soreness or tightness after a workout.
Here’s some more info on how to foam roll more effectively if you want to mix foam rolling and ice baths:
Considerations If You Want To Foam Roll And Do Ice Baths
If you want to foam roll effectively, there are a few things to consider.
Foam rolling can be used as a way to warm up before a workout, although it may not be as effective as other methods (such as an actual warm up like dynamic stretching.)
For the recreational athlete, you can foam roll after a workout, and then after a few hours, take an ice bath if you want to maximise muscle gain. This time spacing is important since ice baths right after weightlifting can reduce hypertrophy.
If you play sports and you have multiple matches one after the other, you can also take ice baths to aid immediate recovery and performance: There’s a reason you can see pro athletes neck deep in ice water in between games.
Note that, once again, taking ice baths right after physical activity won’t be ideal for increasing your performance or muscle gain.
If you're pre-rolling as well, note that it tends to increase flexibility the most, while post-rolling has the largest effect on alleviating muscle pain or when you have DOMS. (Source)
Additionally, foam rolling can improve performance in certain areas:
For example, using a foam roller beforehand only benefited sprinting for elite athletes as the improvement was only very small, at 0.3%. In jumping, the benefits were also trivial, with one study finding foam rolling harmful for jumping. (Source)
However, let’s not discount the role of the possible psychological effects of foam rolling before any sport, not just sprinting:
It can help calm your nerves and get you in the right headspace for your preferred activity, which is useful in competitive domains.
Lastly, foam rollers are better than stick roller massagers in terms of recovery effects. Although, I still prefer massage guns.
Foam rollers aren’t as popular anymore, but some people still swear by them today.
It’s usually up to personal preference as to what newfangled (or rediscovered) fitness and recovery protocols we want to try.
Although the research of foam rolling is still limited, the current studies show that there are some, although tiny, benefits to using foam rollers.
And if you want to include it in your ice bath therapy routine, it’s best to do it before you take a cold plunge, so you can get the benefits of the ice bath for longer and not stretch your body while it’s very cold, which can lead to damaged muscle fibres. (Source: Harvard Health)
In the end, it’s really up to your personal preference and the needs of your body, if you want to foam roll before or after an ice bath (or not at all.)
If you're ready to take your recovery and wellness to the next level, our portable ice bath is the perfect solution. It's easy to set up, requires no plumbing, and can be easily stored away when not in use. —Delivered straight from Christchurch to your doorstep NZ wide.
Harvard Health Publishing. (2022, March 14). The importance of stretching . Retrieved from Harvard Health Publishing: https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-importance-of-stretching
Pearcey GE, Bradbury-Squires DJ, Kawamoto JE, Drinkwater EJ, Behm DG, Button DC. Foam rolling for delayed-onset muscle soreness and recovery of dynamic performance measures. J Athl Train. 2015 Jan;50(1):5-13. doi: 10.4085/1062-6050-50.1.01. Epub 2014 Nov 21. PMID: 25415413; PMCID: PMC4299735.
Wiewelhove T, Döweling A, Schneider C, Hottenrott L, Meyer T, Kellmann M, Pfeiffer M and Ferrauti A (2019) A Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Foam Rolling on Performance and Recovery. Front. Physiol. 10:376. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2019.00376