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Assortment of foam rollers and self-massage tools for foam rolling for runners.  Image courtesy of rei.com
Image from REI.com

Foam rolling.  It seems to be all the rage in the exercise community these days.  And it’s been steadily growing in popularity as a recovery aid amongst runners.  But is foam rolling actually worth your time?  Or is it just another fad that will eventually die out (remember the Ab Roller? 😜)?

What even is foam rolling?  How do you do it?  And what kind of foam roller should you buy to get started?

Let’s find out!

What is foam rolling?

Some call it a form of self-myofascial release (SMR) but the jury is still out on the word “release.”  A better term may be self-myofascial massage.

Foam rolling is…

  • affordable
  • convenient
  • easy to perform
  • time-efficient

Benefits of foam rolling for runners

There are several benefits of foam rolling.  Some are backed up by research studies.  Others need more scientific exploration, but are anecdotally advocated for by exercise specialists.

Benefit #1: Foam rolling relaxes muscles and relieves tension.

It is believed that foam rolling activates sensory receptors that connect muscle fibers to tendons, which helps the muscles to relax.

Benefit #2: Foam rolling improves circulation (blood flow).

More oxygen gets delivered to sore muscles as a result of increased blood flow.

Benefit #3:  Foam rolling decreases recovery time.

A small study published in 2015 indicated a substantial decrease in delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) when athletes foam rolled for 20 minutes immediately following exercise, as well as 24 and 48 hours later.

Benefit #4: Foam rolling increases range of motion.

According to a study done in 2013, the use of a foam roller was shown to increase range of motion in 11 physically active male participants – with no decrease in strength.

Benefit #5: Foam rolling improves posture.

When done regularly, foam rolling can improve core strength, which translates into better posture.

Foam rolling for runners Pinterest graphic

Should I foam roll before or after running?

After is ideal, but you can also roll before an easy run. If you’re racing or have speedwork on the schedule, save the rolling for afterward, as you don’t want muscles that are “too” flexible while running fast.

You’ll get the best result if you can roll immediately following a run (especially if it’s a hard one), but if you can’t fit it in until later in the day, it’s still worth doing.  On days when I can’t fit a rolling session in after a run, I like to do it before bed.  It’s a great way to massage the muscles and loosen up any aches and pains you may have had throughout the day.

How often should I foam roll?

You’ll get the most benefit and rolling will become more comfortable when performed daily.  I know that sounds like a lot, but you can roll out your lower extremities in less than 10 minutes if you spend 1-2 minutes on each major muscle group.  If you’re really pressed for time, at least try to roll on the days that you run or do strength training.

For more on strength training for runners, check out this post – Strength Training for Runners: Should Runners Lift Weights?

What important foam rolling techniques do I need to know about?

  1. Roll slowly.  Use slow, controlled, deliberate movements.  Aim for 1-2 minutes per large muscle group.
  2. Engage your core. Protect your back by engaging your core as you roll through each movement.
  3. Hold pressure.  As you’re rolling, you’ll likely feel areas that need a little more “love” than others. Stay on these spots for about 30 seconds. More time is not necessarily better here.
  4. Perform active movements. Find the trouble spots, “pin the fascia” (see mobilitymastery.com for a more detailed explanation on this technique), and flex/extend at the joint nearest the area you’re rolling.
  5. Stay away from injured areas.  If you’re dealing with an injury or have increased pain in a certain area, don’t roll it! You can wind up increasing inflammation to the area, and we don’t want that.

Foam rolling exercises for runners

Since it’s much easier to show you than to explain with words how to roll each major muscle group, here are some instructional videos that cover each major (lower extremity) muscle group. I only briefly demonstrate each position, but you can aim to spend 1-2 minutes on each of the four large muscle groups mentioned. And don’t forget to breathe through the movements!

A quick note: if you have any pre-existing health conditions, such as osteoporosis or blood disorders, or are taking any kind of blood thinner or cancer treatment, foam rolling may not be appropriate for you.  Please consult with your doctor first!

How to foam roll glutes

How to foam roll hamstrings

How to foam roll quads (including discussion of the IT Band)

How to foam roll calves & shins

How to roll feet using a lacrosse or golf ball

What is the best foam roller for runners?

If you do a search for foam rollers, you’ll see there are a variety of types, from solid to hollow, smooth to bumpy, and even pulsating.  In addition, foam rollers come in different lengths.  It can be a bit confusing trying to figure out which is best.

  • If you’re brand new to foam rolling, you’ll probably find that it’s a bit uncomfortable when you first try it.  To ease in slowly, you may want to start with a softer roller, like this one.  
  • As you become more accustomed to regular rolling, you can move up to a high-density roller, like this one.
  • A “bumpy” roller like this one is great for working on trigger points when you’re ready to really step up your foam rolling game. This is very similar to the roller I used in the videos.
  • A stick roller (like this 18″ Tiger Tail massage stick) is another great tool that’s very portable and allows you to massage muscles in a different way.
  • Think about where and how you plan to use your roller. If you travel a lot or you’d like to be able to use it on the go, consider purchasing a shorter foam roller (around 18″). The hollow rollers have a perfect spot for stuffing socks and other soft items you might be packing in your suitcase.

To summarize…

In addition to reviewing the proper positioning for foam rolling each of the major muscle groups of the lower extremities, we discussed:

  • what foam rolling is
  • the benefits of foam rolling
  • when to foam roll
  • some commonly accepted techniques for foam rolling
  • how to select the right roller for you

By prioritizing recovery, foam rolling can be a very effective way for runners to take their training up a notch.  If you haven’t yet foam rolled, give it a try and let us know how it goes in the comments below!

Disclaimer: You should understand that when participating in any exercise or exercise program, there is the possibility of physical injury. If you engage in exercise or training I recommend, you agree that you do so at your own risk, are voluntarily participating in these activities, assume all risk of injury to yourself, and agree to release and discharge Running With Roots from any and all claims or causes of action, known or unknown, arising out of Running With Roots. Please speak with a medical professional before making any changes to your diet or exercise. I am not a doctor or registered dietitian. The views expressed are based on my own experiences, and should not be taken as medical, nutrition or training advice.

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