Recovery is important for runners who are training and running high mileage. This isn’t something optional to do, but instead needs to be incorporated as a necessary component to training in order to stay healthy and reach your potential as a runner. A foam roller is an invaluable recovery tool that you’ll want to invest in and use correctly.
Foam rolling is a form of soft tissue massage. Various foam rolling movements allow a runner to break up muscle adhesions to jumpstart the recovery process and prepare them for their next run. Runners find that foam rolling offers many benefits including a better range of motion and flexibility.
It can be a bit intimidating knowing which foam roller to get and how best to use it as a runner. The last thing you want is for it to be collecting dust in a corner somewhere! By the end of this foam rolling guide for runners, you’ll be ready to foam roll your way to your best running.
What is foam rolling?
Let’s start with a basic physiology lesson so you know exactly what a foam roller is designed to do.
Everyone has a thin casing of connective tissue that surrounds the muscles, organs and other parts of the body to hold them in place. It stretches as you move. So just does as your muscles can get tight and strained when stressed through exercise, so do your fascia.
In order to break up the tightness and adhesions within the fascia, you need a form of myofascial release. That’s where the foam roller comes in!
Though you can also get myofascial release through a hands-on technique, this is very hard to do on your own! Runners can use a foam roller to mimic soft-tissue massage techniques in the comfort of their own home without paying an arm and a leg for similar benefits.
Benefits of a Foam Roller
A foam roller is a useful recovery tool that every runner should have as part of their running gear.Though the benefits are somewhat disputed (you will likely find studies that say foam rolling is just another gimmick that isn’t necessary), you’ll find just as many physical therapists prescribing foam rolling recovery work to their patients.
What we can all agree on is that there is rarely a downside to foam rolling.
And for me personally, and for the runners that I work with, foam rolling will always be a part of a distance training program. Though I do think runners can get away with skipping the foam rolling if they’re running lower mileage (below 20-25 miles per week) or if they’re a younger runner in their teens or twenties, any runner who is 30 and up and is running more than 25 miles per week should be foam rolling.
Instead of searching the internet to see who says it is or isn’t useful, I’d urge you to try it yourself and I think you’ll find that it helps your legs feel fresh and ready for your runs, as well as helps them recover quicker after your training sessions.
Here are the top 6 benefits runners get from foam rolling:
1.) Allow for a better range of motion.
2.) Improves flexibility.
3.) Alleviates soreness and tightness, including delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) that may show up later from a tough workout.
4.) Helps loosen up tight muscles before heading out for a run.
5.) Increases blood flow to the affected areas.
6.) Breaks up muscles adhesions which are the microtears that occur when doing a hard running workout or running a farther mileage than your body is used to.
If a study to back these benefits is something that you’re after, Frontiers in Physiology had this to say after conducting a meta-analysis of the effects of foam rolling:
“Pre-rolling seems to be an effective strategy for short-term improvements in flexibility without decreasing muscle performance. The review has also shown that the improvement of sprint performance to be expected from the use of pre-rolling, as well as the recovery rate of the performance measures of speed and strength with post-rolling, are significant enough to be relevant.”
They also go onto say that the benefits may also be psychological, but I for one, am totally down with any extra feel-good placebo effect.
So the next time you wonder if foam rolling is good for runners, I’d say the answer is almost always yes. Of course there are always exceptions, but there aren’t any endurance runners I know who don’t foam roll. It’s what we do!
Should runners ever avoid foam rolling?
Though foam rolling is usually a very safe practice and an inexpensive and easy way to release tension through myofascial release, there are a couple considerations to keep in mind:
- Foam rolling is often uncomfortable with a hurts so good type of feeling, but it should NEVER be painful. If it is, STOP. And if you know rolling that part of your body never feels ok to you, then just skip that area.
- You need to be careful rolling your IT Band. Unlike the other areas you’ll be rolling, this isn’t a muscle. In this article I’ll specifically discuss rolling the IT Band so you can decide if that’s an area you may need to skip.
- Don’t roll your lower back. This is a mistake a lot of runners make and it can actually contribute to low back pain.
- Keep a neutral spine. I explain this in the video above, so you can watch how to do that. In other words, keep a flat back, don’t arch your back over the foam roller.
If you follow those guidelines, you should be good to go and your foam rolling will be a beneficial and positive experience!
It would be a very rare instance that someone shouldn’t foam roll at all, but of course, your doctor’s advice (as well as listening to your body) will always top what I have to say.
How often should runners foam roll?
Runners who are running high mileage (think 40 miles and up) could benefit from foam rolling everyday. And it will often be more than once per day depending on the type of run. For example, with a long run, I roll the night before, the morning before heading out the door, and when I get back. Since I just entered the age of a “master’s runner” last year, it’s become even more important.
Now this doesn’t mean you need to foam roll every part of your body every time. Instead, focus on the parts that are sore or you know have a tendency to get tight. For me, that’s my calves. If I don’t foam roll them, I risk pulling the calf muscle simply because I am a mid/forefoot runner which puts more stress on my calves.
Runners who are running less mileage would do well with following the 10-minute routine I show in my video above a few times a week to keep the body primed and feeling good for each of your runs.
Types of Foam Rollers
When people say “foam roller” you probably have a specific image that comes to mind based on what you’ve used in the past or what you’ve perhaps seen in the past. And for a awhile there, there was really only one type of foam roller you could get your hands on. But now, there are so many to choose from that it can be difficult to know where to start.
Let’s take a look at the different types and there characteristics so you can decide which one is right for you. (Though chances are you’ll end up with your top 3 so you can get every body part…having one from each category is what has worked well for me.)
Standard Foam Roller
Standard Foam Rollers come in different lengths, colors and textures, but generally they have a similar cylinder shape and circumference. The shorter ones are much more portable and stow better, so I’d probably recommend that over a long one (though the long is what I use).
These are the three main types of standard foam rollers:
- Soft/Low Density Smooth – A low density foam roller is a bit more forgiving than the high density. If you find foam rolling in general to be almost too uncomfortable or know you are more sensitive in general, this could be a good place to start. You will not get as deep into the fascia as with the high density, but you can still get the benefits of foam rolling.
- High Density Smooth – This is the foam roller that I use several times per week. It is nothing fancy, but does exactly what it’s supposed to – give that much needed myofascial release for sore muscles related to high mileage. It has a smooth surface and it’s easy to determine how much pressure I’m putting on each part of the body as I roll.
- Textured – I haven’t personally used a textured roller, but know other runners swear by them. These rollers may have small bumps or spikes that help dig into some of those harder to reach areas. It can be really useful on the back. Keep in mind, however, that this type of roller is going to get deeper into the tissue, so it’s best for those who are more experienced with deep tissue massage and/or foam rolling.
They even have this great collapsible one for travel – and if you are someone like me who needs to foam roll before every race, this may be a good one for you.
Foam Roller Ball
Foam roller balls are a great addition to your massaging “toolbox.” Though the standard foam roller is amazing for many major muscle groups, they are very good at targeting the smaller and often hard to reach areas. Additionally, a typical foam roller isn’t going to help your sore feet in any way.
If you are prone to plantar fasciitis, get knots in your upper back, or want to get into the area of your upper glutes, you’ll need a foam roller ball. I have the Trigger Point foam ball which has a smooth surface, but you can also find textured ones that will feel a bit different (and may be a different material than foam).
Foam Covered Roller Stick
The major difference between your standard foam roller and a foam roller stick is that with the stick, instead of using your full body to control the pressure, you place your hands on the ends and control it that way.
I personally prefer a standard roller for most parts of the body, but the roller stick is great to use on the quad muscles. It’s also much smaller and easy to tuck away, so if you’re tight on space, this could be a good option.
How long should I foam roll?
Before I get into the specific massage exercises you’ll want to be doing with your foam rolling, it’s important to know how long you want to spend on each exercise.
Though the amount of time spent on each spot will be different for everyone (and some spots will require more time than others), it’s important to know two things: one or two quick sweeps on each area is not enough; spending more than 2 minutes on each area is probably not necessary.
I personally aim to spend about a minute on each area as a guideline. In doing that, I know that I am making enough time to get my foam rolling in properly.
A good full-body foam-rolling routine will last about 10 minutes, though you don’t need to do every single area of the body every time.
When to spend a little more time foam rolling:
Any areas that feel sore or tight deserve a little extra love. Do take care though not to put too much pressure on tender areas. Start off with lighter pressure and as you can feel those adhesions start to break up you can bring up the pressure a bit. Though foam rolling is often uncomfortable, it shouldn’t ever be painful.
When to spend little less time foam rolling:
Foam rolling is great as a preventative measure against tightness, niggles and injuries. So, if your body is feeling great and you’re simply doing this as prevention, just take 45 seconds – 1 minute to cover each area and that should be enough. Of course, if the rolling feels good in a particular spot, by all means, you can spend more time on that point.
How to Foam Roll
Now that you know how essential foam rolling is to proper running recovery, let’s cover how to use it. These are my favorite muscles and muscle groups to massage out after a long run.
Some will benefit most from the larger cylinder foam roller, whereas those smaller and hard to reach spots will do better with the roller ball.
Foam Rolling Exercises with Cylinder Foam Roller
The larger, standard foam roller can be used for the following 7 areas of the body. You don’t need to do every area every time. And you may find that for your personally, rolling a particular area isn’t helpful and you can skip that. Make sure to read my notes about whether or not you should roll your IT band.
If a stick roller is all you have or what you prefer, most of these can be performed with that as well (though the back would be tough to do on you own)!
As a runner, this is a muscle group you definitely will need to spend time foam rolling. And as you increase mileage, you’ll likely feel fatigue and tightness in this area. Additionally, if you are someone who runs with more of a mid- or forefoot strike, extra strain will be put on the calves and foam rolling them will become your saving grace. (I’m in that camp!)
Be sure to roll your calves one at a time. If you’re foam rolling your right calf, cross your left leg over the right so that the left leg isn’t touching the foam roller. Lift your upper body off the ground with your arms to apply pressure to the right calf. Roll slowly, spending about 30-45 seconds on the right calf, and then switch.
Your hamstrings are working overtime when you’re running, especially after putting in some good speedwork. Give them a little love with the foam roller!
After rolling the calves, simply move your body up the roller so that it’s sitting under your hamstrings. Again, you want to do one leg at a time. Cross the opposite leg like you did with the calves, roll, then switch.
I don’t actually spend a lot of time rolling the large glute muscles just because it’s not an area where I need it as much. But as I work up the back of my body, I stop there for a few slow rolls and then move to the middle of the back.
Foam rolling of the back will include your middle and upper back. There is no need to roll your lower back and can actually do more harm than good. It will likely force you to arch your back in such a way that is not advised movement for your body.
Instead, go ahead and gently move the roller to the middle of the back (right at the bottom of your rib cage) and then roll up your back all the way to your shoulders (avoiding the neck), then back down. Continue slowly rolling the area for about 45 seconds to 1 minute. (Be sure to use the roller ball as we suggest below for the hard to reach areas of the upper back!)
These are essentially the muscles that run from your knee up your inner thigh – as adductors they contract to pull the thigh toward the midline of the body.
To foam roll these, you’re going to need to turn over on your stomach. And yes, you’ll look a little silly doing this one, but don’t skip it. Place the foam roller under one leg and then turn that leg outward. While lifting your body off the ground with your forearms, roll from the inside of your knee all the way up to your groin. Spend about 30-45 seconds on each leg slowing going back and forth.
Not everyone should foam roll their IT Band (the thick fascia that runs down the side of your upper leg from your hip to your knee). And according to The Doctors of Physical Therapy, they actually recommend that most people rarely roll their IT Band. I do roll my IT band from time to time, but I don’t feel discomfort in that area and it isn’t an area I focus on often. As always, if it feels overly uncomfortable or painful – or if you’ve experience IT Band Syndrome in the past, this is probably an area to avoid.
What to do instead? It’s better to roll the muscles that attach to the IT Band, like the sides of your quads, hamstrings and glutes.
I actually prefer the roller stick for this exercise, but you can use a standard foam roller as well. Lie down on top of the foam roller so that you are facing the floor. Then, roll across your quads moving from your knee up to your hips and back down.
Foam Rolling Exercises with Roller Ball
The following areas will be next to impossible to experience the necessary myofascial release from using a typical foam roller. The best way to mimic the soft-tissue massage for these hard to reach areas is to use a foam roller ball. Just as if someone’s hands and thumbs were breaking up those knots – the ball can do the same.
The best part is that you don’t need to rely on someone else to get the same benefit.
For this exercise, standing is best. However, you could do it sitting on the floor by raising up your body to be able to put enough pressure on your foot.
If you are someone who is prone to plantar fasciitis or have discomfort in your feet after all those miles, this is a must for your routine. Be sure you move the ball all around to get the heel, arch and the forefoot.
Though you can use a standard foam roller to roll across the upper back, you won’t be able to use that to dig into any knots that may form in the muscles around your shoulder blades.
You can either do this exercise lying down on the floor or standing with your back to the wall. Put the ball between your upper back and the floor/wall, apply pressure, then roll the ball with your back! This one just feels so good!
The standard foam roller is great for the large glute muscles (maximus), but to get into where your butt meets your back (medius and minimus), the ball works great. I prefer to do this one lying down on the floor but you could do it against a wall, too. Perform just as you would for the upper back.
Foam Roll Your Way to Better Running
There’s no better time to start foam rolling than right now! This is an inexpensive way to recover those tight and overworked muscles – a typical byproduct of increased mileage and speed in your training. Recovery is a key component to reaching your potential as a runner, and foam rolling in the pre-run and post-run recovery process is a must to include.