The foam roller is a trusted companion to runners everywhere. But are we using a foam roller correctly? And are they necessary at all?
Flashback to 1998: I just started running. Smart watches were a fantastical sci-fi dream and Strava didn’t exist (actually, the internet was barely used for running back then!).
During my four years on the high school’s cross country, indoor, and outdoor track teams we spent time in weight room and with the Athletic Trainer.
But what’s surprising is that I never used a foam roller until I went to college! They weren’t very popular with recreational runners at the time – and even our competitive high school teams never used them.
Everything changed at the collegiate level. I was exposed to more coaches, styles and philosophies of training, and recovery methods.
More importantly, the training got a lot more difficult:
- After running 30-40 miles per week in high school, I started running 60-85 miles per week in college
- Races got longer
- Workouts got both longer and faster
It wasn’t an easy transition. In fact, I spent a lot of time injured with the Athletic Trainer.
It was there that I was first exposed to the countless recovery tactics that exist in the world of physical therapy:
- electric stim
- chiropractic manipulation and massage
- hot and cold baths (and heat wraps, ice wraps, and ice cups)
- Foam rolling and other forms of self-massage
But were they really necessary? Even though massage feels good, was it actually helping my running?
Foam Rolling for Runners: Benefits
Using a foam roller is a form of myofascial release – like getting a professional massage (without the need to get naked and slathered in oil).
And since I’m a running coach (and you’re reading a running site), I’m going to focus on the benefits of foam rolling for runners.
Those benefits are substantial:
- Enhanced circulation and blood flow, particularly to extremities
- By stimulating blood flow, dramatically more oxygen is delivered to sore muscles
- Relaxation and the promotion of a feeling of well-being
- Removal of scar tissue or muscle adhesions in the fascia that limit mobility
- Reduction in stress hormones and inflammation
- Better range of motion
- Improved immune function
Clearly, there’s a lot to like about using a foam roller!
For this reason, foam rolling can be a prominent and helpful part of any runner’s training program. It can improve recovery, promote well-being, and help you feel better while running.
Dr. Jason Ross is a chiropractor, strength coach, and founder of Train Out Pain. He completely agrees, noting:
Foam rolling is a great habit for a runners’ pre- and post-routine. It’s an integral part of their cool down to kickstart recovery.
Foam rolling has been shown to increase range of motion and also decrease discomfort from delayed onset muscle soreness. It also changes how an athlete feels, which in turn will have a positive impact on mood and movement.
Even Ian Sharman (4-time winner of the Leadville Trail 100) considers foam rolling a key part of his injury prevention and recovery strategy.
He talks about how he uses a foam roller in our (free) Little Black Book of Recovery & Prevention.
Avoid These Foam Roller Mistakes
While using a foam roller is a no-brainer based on the evidence – and the injury risk is virtually nonexistent – there are some mistakes you’ll want to avoid.
Mistake #1: Using a Foam Roller at the Wrong Time
First, don’t spend a lot of time on the foam roller right before a hard workout or short, fast race. Excessive foam rolling might reduce muscle tension, thereby reducing your ability to run fast.
Relaxed muscles are great to have – but you don’t want to be too relaxed before a big effort.
Mistake #2: Rolling an Injury
Injured muscles are usually damaged – they’re strained, torn, or overly stretched. For that reason, they’re usually hotbeds of inflammation. And too much foam rolling could increase inflammation and tension in the area.
Also, you might not be doing anything to help yourself recover! For example, runners with IT Band Syndrome have long rolled the IT band because “it’s tight.” But it’s supposed to be tight! ITBS is not caused by a tight IT band.
Instead, runners should foam roll the surrounding musculature while improving their strength.
Mistake #3: Rolling Too Quickly (or too long)
Like any type of massage, you can use a foam roller for too long, too little, or use it too aggressively.
Set a time limit of 1-2 minutes per major muscle. Use slow, controlled, and deliberate movements over the roller rather than quick, fast movements.
And if you find an area that’s particularly sore, tight, or painful, you can spend an extra 20-45 seconds pressing on the sensitive area. But don’t spend much longer than that (you might just further irritate the muscle).
Using a Foam Roller The Right Way
Now that we know what mistakes to avoid, how do we start using a foam roller correctly?
Follow these guidelines:
- Use slow, deliberate motions
- Don’t hold your breath! Remember to breathe normally
- Start with a gentle amount of pressure and gradually increase it
- Spend 1-2 minutes on each muscle but no longer
- Avoid injured areas and connective tissue that’s supposed to be tight (like the IT Band)
Almost all of your foam rolling can be done in about ten minutes or less if you focus on the major muscles like the quadriceps, hamstrings, hips, glutes, and calves.
This video demonstrates several movements for foam rolling these areas:
I also want to encourage you not to overthink foam rolling! It’s very difficult to have “bad form” when it comes to using a foam roller.
Stay comfortable, don’t twist yourself into a pretzel, and remember to breathe.
As long as you’re moving slowly and deliberately while keeping your body in a good position, you’ll be just fine.
Foam Roller Q&A
If you’ve never used a foam roller before, you might have some questions. I’ve put together some common FAQ about foam rolling to help you get the most out of this recovery method.
Who Should Not Use a Foam Roller?
There are several populations that might experience complications from using a foam roller:
- Folks taking blood thinning medication or who have a blood disease
- Those undergoing cancer treatments
- People with osteoporosis
If you find yourself to be in one of those groups, please discuss foam rolling and your exercise program with a doctor.
What if Foam Rolling Doesn’t Work?
It’s true that some areas of your body need more substantial massage than what you can get by using a foam roller.
In fact, in the above video you’ll see that rolling my hamstrings was “easy.” Too easy!
You might want to use a massage ball for harder to massage spots:
- Arch / Plantar Fascia
- Hip Flexors
Always use a massage ball gently at first and increase pressure gradually and conservatively. There’s no need to cause yourself a lot of pain.
What Kind of Foam Roller Should I Buy?
A simple one!
You certainly don’t need anything fancy, complex, or expensive. The affordable versions work well:
- The simplest foam roller you can buy (the small version is less than $10)
- A more aggressive roller with textured bumps for deeper massage
- This vibrating foam roller is probably not necessary (but likely a lot of fun!)
If you’re spending a lot more on a foam roller than these models, you’re throwing your cash away.
Should Foam Rolling Hurt?
A little bit! Foam rolling – like deep tissue massage – can be uncomfortable. Releasing trigger points and breaking down myofascial adhesions ain’t easy, after all.
But you shouldn’t be in any amount of significant pain. If you’re experiencing sharp or stabbing pain, reduce the pressure of your foam rolling until it’s more manageable.
Remember: discomfort is fine but pain is bad.
When Should I Foam Roll?
Foam rolling is ideally done after your training session is complete. It can be the final piece to your workout before you hit the shower.
It can also be done as often as every day (no harm in that!) or after your harder workouts and long runs.
Spending 5-10 minutes using a foam roller after a run can be a great way to boost the recovery process and help you relax after a tough workout.
But you can also use a foam roller before you start running. It’s best to do this before training runs rather than workouts or races (for the muscle tension reason we discussed above). Keep it light and don’t over-roll before a run.
Download the Foam Roller Cheat Sheet
While it’s obvious that you would love to watch my foam roller video on repeat, I want to save your eyes from looking at my half-tights for too long.
Download our free Cheat Sheet to foam rolling for runners, featuring a photo guide for:
- Optimal Positions
- Common mistakes to avoid
- Best practices
- Ideal times for using a foam roller
Get it here and hang it up where you foam roll, refer to it whenever necessary, or make fun paper airplanes.
And hopefully, it will encourage you to foam roll more regularly to enhance your recovery!