Foam Rolling has many benefits, but like with all things, HOW we foam roll has a big impact on whether or not we gain those benefits. In fact, done incorrectly, foam rolling can actually be harmful, and worsen existing injuries. But first, what exactly is foam rolling, its benefits, and why should you do it daily?
Foam Rolling – What is it? What is fascia?!
This may sound scientific, but foam rolling is a self myofascial release (SMR) technique. Breaking that word myofascial down further:
- Myo = muscle
- Fascia = band or bundle in latin
The fascia is a sheet/band of connective tissue that envelops or binds together your muscles (and fascia is present throughout your body, around organs and other tissues). Your muscle integrity relies entirely on the fascia that surrounds it and holds it in place. It’s important!
Foam rolling is like giving yourself a targeted massage. Alas, self myofascial release.
Foam Rolling BENEFITS – Is it really worth it?
YES. With training, overuse, muscle imbalance, etc., myofascial adhesions (knots) develop. Foam rolling helps address muscle tightness, inflammation, & soreness related to these adhesions. It also aids in improving joints range of motion. Foam rolling enables your workouts to be more effective, and you less likely to injury.
Recovery is an important aspect of training. ACE (American Council of Exercise) states “you don’t get better when you work out; you get better by recovering from a workout.” Foam rolling is a form of effective active recovery, a movement that is not challenging enough to break down muscle.
Put another way, foam rolling improves recovery through more blood flow. Better hydration through increased blood flow in your muscles means more water and nutrients are available for muscle action and healing. Improved blood flow happens with movements like exercise, walking, being active, and manipulation (self myofascial release) of the tissues through a foam rolling, or other devices.
<< Read about benefits of rest and recovery for runners >>
How OFTEN should I foam roll?
Best case scenario is daily. Being consistent will allow you to be less injury prone. Doing so also allows your muscles to be warmer, and will break up adhesions for a more comfortable run (if you foam roll prior to your run!). And, frankly, the more often you foam roll, the easier, and more comfortable it becomes.
The key is consistency. Just as you run, or exercise to continue to build your endurance, health, performance (and so on), the same applies to foam rolling. It is not a one and done exercise, one that you only do when an injury is lurking (or here!). Recent research suggests less pressure applied more often may have better results.
WHEN should I foam roll?
There are benefits for rolling before and after a run (or any exercise). Prior to a run helps warm up the muscles and address any adhesions/knots that can impede your run. Conversely, rolling after helps the recovery process as described above, addressing soreness, inflammation, etc.
Granted, your schedule may not allow you to roll before and after! If you can foam roll once for a few minutes each day given your schedule, that is still a big WIN.
PRO TIP: I keep my foam roller tucked away in our living room. That way, it is always close by, and in the evening when I’m relaxing, or if I have a few minutes before leaving for work (or a run), I’ll use it. If it’s close by, better odds of it being used!
Is there a WRONG way to foam roll?
Yes! There are some watch outs, for sure. You can actually exacerbate an injury, or irritate your muscles/joints if done improperly. To avoid that, here are some watch-outs to keep in mind:
Using the wrong amount of pressure.
Using the same amount of pressure for every spot isn’t smart. Some areas have more tension/knots than others. There should be enough tension for it to be “uncomfortable,” but not painful. If you feel no tension/discomfort, then apply more pressure. If there is significant pain, then ease up! Essentially, your body will let you know how much pressure, and aim for some discomfort, but not high pain.
Spending excessive time on a problem spot.
Going crazy on an especially tight spot, or an injured area won’t get the results you want. Rather, go overboard, and you can worsen the situation. Several sources recommend spending 30-45 seconds on a tight spot until it releases, and then moving on. And, too much pressure/time on an especially tight/injured area can cause further damage.
James Shapiro, a corrective exercise specialist in New York City states “You may experience tingling, pulsing, or limbs ‘falling asleep.’ That’s when you should move your location or change position. It indicates you’re pressuring nerves improperly or limiting blood flow.”
Starting ON the sore spot (or area of greatest tension).
Instead of going directly to the tightest spot(s), work around the area first, and then move to the offending area. Typically, tackling the surrounding area first helps relax/release the “problem” spot before you address it.
Be careful foam rolling a “cold” muscle.
Ease into the pressure you’re applying if you have not warmed up your muscles. That, plus starting slower with the foam roller movement will help your body to generate some heat to warm up your muscles, and loosen tension.
Rolling the wrong spots.
The majority of muscles can be foam rolled, but there’s a few areas to stay clear of: your neck, low back, and pubis area. There’s insufficient muscle tissue in those areas for foam rolling to be safe and effective, according to James Shapiro.
This also includes your IT band! Your IT band is NOT a muscle. Rather, it is a very tough, thick strip of fibrous tissue, and does not respond/loosen as muscles do with foam rolling. If you’re in the midst of an IT issue, focus on the areas around it: the glutes, hamstrings, and quads. If you choose to roll your IT band when issues are not present, use less pressure, or potentially a less dense foam roller.
You know the watch outs, so what SHOULD you do?
- Be deliberate and slow with your movement.
- Start with gentler pressure, and then increase gradually.
- Spend just 1-2 minutes on a muscle group (ie your quad/thigh muscles), and then move on!
- Avoid injured areas, and areas that are supposed to be tight, like the IT band!
Foam Rolling Areas for Runners
Front of Legs
Quads (thigh muscles)
Lie facing the ground in a “plank” position. Start with one leg on the foam roller, and go from mid thigh down to just above the knee (NOT over it), and then up, and even over your hip. If it’s too difficult or painful to do each leg individually, roll them together.
While you’re rolling the quads, attempt to hit the upper outer part of your hip, right in front/below the iliac crest (bony upper part of hip). That is the tensor fascia latte muscle, and is the muscular portion that is above your IT band. This muscle is important is small, but important in stabilizing your hip and knee joint.
Inner thigh (adductor muscles)
Lie facing the floor and have the roller vertically next to you. Use your forearms for support. Bend your left leg at hip to ~90˚. Roll from upper inner thigh down to above the knee. Overactive adductors can be one cause of your knee moving inward toward the midline with movement (“knock knee”), and can lead to knee issues.
Shin splints are a common runner’s ailment, and this is a good preventive tool to keep them at bay. Resting your shins on a foam roller, lean forward in a table top position and roll from knee to ankle. This may feel better on a softer foam roller, or offset some of the weight as you roll if it’s too uncomfortable.
Back of Legs
Essentially, sit ON the foam roller with your feet placed on floor, knees bent. Then begin a rocking motion slowly back and forth to release your glutes. To address the piriformis muscle, put one ankle on opposite knee and then slowly roll (then, switch sides).
Lie facing up with roller underneath one leg, just below your bottom. Roll from that area to just above the knee. Your hamstrings “insert” on both sides of your knee, so be sure to cover the inner and outer portions of the back of the thigh. Remember to go slowly, and pause on the areas that feel especially tight.
Calf muscles are especially prone to tightness, and if not addressed, can cause multiple issues, such as plantar fasciitis and achilles tendonitis. This area tends to be more uncomfortable to roll, so go slow and build up the pressure.
Best to start on the belly of the calf, and then go higher/lower as comfort allows. Attempt to do each leg individually, and when you want to add more pressure (not pain), put one leg on top of the other when rolling.
Types of Foam Rollers
There are a multitude of different brands and types of foam rollers. I will not go into extensive detail here, but know that there is variance in density, shape/size, and surface texture.
- Density: This is key factor in how effective they are at deep-tissue massage. A roller that is too soft may provide inadequate pressure while a foam roller that is too hard can cause bruising and trauma. If you’re new to foam rolling, consider starting with a softer foam roller.
- Surface texture: Some foam rollers have ridges and knobs for applying different amounts of pressure; others are smooth.
- Shape and size: A 36″ roller may be the most versatile, allowing you to lie on it (spine) for rolling your back. There are also travel size rollers (I have one that fits in my suitcase). A 5-6″ diameter is the most common. A 3-4″ version (diameter) allows for deeper/more targeted self massage.
If you are new to foam rolling, a smooth, 36″ foam roller without ridges may be a good start! Here are some options (ones which I use personally):
- Trigger Point 13″ Grid Foam Roller X – note this is a FIRM foam roller. The original has a green on the interior, and is less dense. May be better for those new to foam rolling!
- Yes4All Roller – this is a “softer” roller (and longer than the Grid)
- TriggerPoint 4″ Grid Foam Roller Mini – great for travel