In this article, I will discuss how to use a foam roller and why a foam roller is my “secret weapon.” Foam rollers are great tools for both injury prevention and performance enhancement. Foam rollers are the poor man’s massage therapist. They can provide soft tissue work to help many athletes, in any setting. Sources & references that I used to help me complete this article are listed at the end of the article.
A foam roller is simply a cylindrical piece of extruded hard-celled foam. Think swimming pool noodles, but more dense and larger in diameter. They usually come in one-foot or three-foot lengths. I find the three-foot model works better, because I can roll on both legs at once, but it obviously takes up more space.
Foam Roller Basics
Foam rolling is a form of self-massage that helps to relieve muscle tightness. Rolling applies pressure to specific points on your body that helps loosen the muscles and assist in returning them to normal function. When I think of normal function, this means your muscles are elastic, healthy, and ready to perform at a moment’s notice.
However, for me, a foam roller is more than a tool to rehab injured muscles, I believe it should be used by healthy runner’s to warm-up and cool-down after workouts. Rolling properly on foam can improve circulation. Rolling breaks down knots that can limit range of motion and it can prepare muscles for stretching. Foam rollers, when used correctly, can release tension and tightness between the muscles and the fascia (which surrounds the muscle or group of muscles). Foam rolling, as well as dynamic stretching (after a run or after foam rolling) can help improve flexibility and range of movement, and actually decrease the risk of injury.
It’s important to move slowly and even stop and hold the roller on tender spots. Ensure you breathe through the discomfort. If an area really hurts, go gentle on it and support some of your weight elsewhere, using your arms. One thing you want to avoid is rolling on an injured or inflamed area of your body. For this reason, I recommend to those that I coach to go indirect before direct. This means that if you find a spot that’s particularly sensitive, ease away from that area by a few inches. Take some time to work a more localized region around areas where you feel discomfort. Work these “neighboring areas” before using larger, sweeping motions. Eventually work to keep pressure on the affected area with the foam roller. You can add more “weight” as the muscle relaxes by stacking your legs. With a foam roller, you can basically work to your own pain threshold.
I know many people that don’t want to roll, because they think it will hurt. This may be true, especially when you start rolling for the first time. There can be some discomfort, but this is often because these muscles are tight. Once loosened, rolling is rarely painful. Instead it feels very good on tired muscles.
The foam roller is a critical part of my marathon training. Just remember that your legs are “round” and not “flat.” This means that you shouldn’t roll on one side of your leg. Work all sides of your legs. Especially the IT Band (discussed below).
If you’re new to foam rolling, start out gradually with lighter pressure and a shorter session. In time you can progress to more intense pressure.
While foam rolling can be done both before and after a workout, pre-workout sessions should focus on problem areas whereas post-workout sessions can focus on all of the muscle groups worked that day.
The key to foam rolling is to use your body weight on the roller.
I’ve attached a few videos from various sources to help demonstrate how to properly use a foam roller. These are my favorite foam roller exercises:
1. Warm-Up – Use the foam roller prior to running. Complete light rolling with long, sweeping strokes to the long muscle groups like the calves, adductors, and quadriceps. Focus on areas that are particularly stiff. Be careful not to roll on your lower back. If you feel stiff, rolling increases blood flow and helps to relieve muscle tightness that can interfere with proper running form.
2. Cool-Down – Use the foam roller after running and stretching. Similar to warm-up, lightly roll with long strokes all around your legs. You can roll on your upper back because the shoulder blades and muscles protect the spine, whereas there is no similar protect if you were to roll the lower back. Concentrate rolling on areas that seem particularly stiff or sore.
3. Calves – This is the most common foam roller exercise along with hamstrings. Place the roller under one or both of your calves. If only doing one calf at a time, rest your other foot on the floor. Roll all the way from your ankle to below the knee. As discussed above, your legs are round and not flat, so rotate your legs in and then out. If you want to add pressure, simply stack your ankles.
4. Hamstrings – Along with calves, another very common rolling exercise. Place the roller under your thighs. Roll from the knees to the buttocks. To increase the pressure, roll one leg at time while turning your leg in and out.
5. Front Shins – If you are suffering from shin splints, then you should roll on the outside part of your lower leg (the part associated with shin splints). Besides biomechanical inefficiencies, the primary reason for shin splints is a muscle imbalance in your lower legs. Shin splints typically occur with beginner runners or a runner who’s returning from a lengthy layoff. When running on hard surfaces with worn out or ill-fitting shoes, the weaker front “Anterior Tibial” muscles are overloaded or shocked by the stronger calf muscles.
I go into detail about how to rehab for shin splints in the injury prevention portion of my marathon training e-book.
In this article, I want focus less on rehab and more on how to use a foam roller for the Anterior Tibial muscle. If you are suffering from shin splints, take this exercise slow to prevent further injury. Start at the top (near the knee) and work down then up again along the outside front of your leg. You can do this in a kneeling position or a position similar to a plank. However, as with most foam rolling stretches, you might need to adjust to target the muscle (and not fall over in the process).
6. Iliotibial (IT) Band – Until I successfully loosened up my IT Band with the foam roller, I experienced what felt like, never ending foot and ankle discomfort. My Doctor had confirmed that I wasn’t injured. However, it was my Physical Therapist who connected my tight IT Band as the root cause of my aches and then showed me how to properly roll on and loosen up my IT Band. After working on this for a few weeks, I noticed that the foot and ankle pain that I had experienced for 2+ years, finally went away.
To work the IT Band, lie on your side with the roller near your hip, rest your other legs foot on the floor and then move along your outer thigh. For most runners, working the IT Band with a foam roller is particularly painful. This is because the IT band is often too tight. IT Band injuries are more painful than rolling over a tight IT Band, so it’s well worth your time to perform this exercise regularly. If you don’t feel much discomfort when performing this exercise, then try increasing the pressure by stacking your legs. When you feel discomfort, go slow and let IT Band loosen itself. Don’t forget to breath while performing this exercise.
7. Quads – Because your legs are round and not flat, we must also roll on our quads. This is a simple, but slightly awkward exercise. Lie on your stomach with a roller placed under the front of your thigh and slowly roll up and down from the bottom of your hip to the top of your knee.
8. Inner Thighs or Adductors – I rarely perform this exercise, but I do know others who work their adductors to rehab groin injuries or strains. Lie on your stomach with one leg extended slightly to the side, knee bent. Place the roller in the groin area of the extended leg and roll the inner thigh. You’ll have to brace yourself with your elbows (like a plank) to complete this roll.
9. Gluteus or buttocks – your butt does a lot of work when you’re running, so you need to treat it with some foam rolling. You should also take the time to roll on your lower back. Make sure that you roll slowly. You get more benefit from the foam roller when you go slow over the tightest or most painful areas.
10. Other areas to roll – neck, hip flexors and feet
Assessing Effectiveness of your foam rolling efforts
As discussed, it can be hard to use a foam roller, especially if it’s slightly painful. Massage work and even some stretching can also be uncomfortable, especially with stiff or “knotted” muscles. Therefore, it is important that runners learn to distinguish between a moderate level of discomfort related to working a muscle’s trigger point and pain or discomfort that can lead to injury.
When you complete a foam rolling session, you should feel better, not worse. The roller should never cause bruising. The first thing you should do after foam rolling is ask yourself how your muscles feel. Once you start feeling the awesome effects of rolling, you’ll want to make it a part of your regular training regime. Remember to be patient. Becoming mobile and strong requires a long-term commitment to foam roller deep-tissue massage and other recovery work.
If you continue to feel pain after your foam rolling sessions, you should visit a physical therapist. You may have an injury or it might be possible that you’re simply not rolling correctly.
In addition to my vast experience of training with a foam roller, I used the following sources & references to assist me in completing this article on how to use a foam roller.
- Runner’s World
- Peak Fitness by Mercola.com