Having a foam roller at the ready can be a simple and effective way to take injury prevention into your own hands. It’s not exactly magic, but incorporating a regular foam rolling routine into your training plan may help you steer clear of some overuse injuries and lingering tightness.
But some foam rolling exercises are more helpful than others for runners, and using the right density of roller can mean the difference between a therapeutic session and one that leaves you even sorer than you were before you began. To set the record straight, we spoke to movement teacher and author of Eat Well, Move Well, Live Well, Galina Denzel.
“Foam rolling has been shown to improve range of motion without decreasing performance, so it’s an excellent warm-up for runners,” Denzel says. “It can improve blood flow, hydration of tissues, tissue sliding, fascial communication, overall ease of movement along a myofascial chain or meridian, as well as decrease recovery time and soreness after exercise.”
In addition to the physical benefits of foam rolling that research supports, Denzel has noticed another surprising bonus. “Anecdotal evidence in my practice shows people feeling calmer, more self-reliant and feeling in control when injured or in pain [when foam rolling is introduced],” she says, adding that she also sees increased mood and willingness to exercise when rolling. “We joke it’s like flossing your teeth—but for your muscles and fascia.”
Foam Roller Warm-Up
If you’re looking to use a foam roller to get your body ready to run, Denzel recommends a combination of rolling exercises, like the four listed below (pictures found here), and dynamic stretching (such as high knee raises, toy soldiers or kick-backs). If you’re short on time, choose just two foam rolling movements and spend about five minutes total doing them before you head out.
Calf Cross Fiber Roll
Place your leg over a foam roller and cross the other leg on top. Roll in toward the midline and away from the midline. If you find a spot that feels harder to roll over, pause there and take a few deep breaths. Continue to cross fiber massage moving left and right for 30 seconds. Rest and repeat two to three times.
Place the roller where your upper leg meets the pelvis (right where your jeans pocket would be)—that tiny, bulky muscle is your tensor fasciae latae muscle (TFL). Roll up and down a few times along the fiber of the muscle. Then roll your body side to side across the belly of the muscle. Aim to roll in each direction 30 seconds each and take a break, then repeat.
You can go double-leg or single-leg here. Place the roller midleg and roll toward the knee and then up toward the pelvis. Be aware of areas of restriction or hard muscle that the roller doesn’t glide over (it might feel lumpy or hard to cross). Focus on that area without pressing in too much. Once finished with each resistant area, roll again up and down the whole length of the quadriceps. Aim to spend 30 seconds on each area.
Sit with one hip on the roller and cross your ankle over to the opposite knee. Roll back and forth, finding the deep hip rotators. Focus here for 30 seconds, rest and repeat.
Other Foam Rolling Opportunities
Rolling pre-run isn’t the only way to utilize this tool. Denzel acknowledges that, though the research is still quite new, studies have shown that foam rolling before and after a workout has benefits. “Each experienced runner knows where their body feels tight, tired or rigid after a run, and those areas can be rolled daily—especially on days off when [they aren’t] running—as a form of active recovery.”
Foam rolling can also be helpful for runners with jobs that require them to sit at a desk or drive for long periods of time. Getting on a roller after several hours spent in a seated position can greatly improve functional movement (not to mention the fact that it might also feel extremely therapeutic).
Getting The Most Out Of Your Foam Roller
For most runners, finding time to roll and making it a habit is the biggest hurdle to gleaning the benefits of the practice. However, there are a few common mistakes that Denzel sees athletes make when they first begin using a foam roller, like rolling very rapidly and holding their breath. Both of these habits are natural reactions due to the fact that, when you first begin the practice on tight tissue, it will likely feel uncomfortable. But it’s vital that you roll slowly, even coming to a stop on particularly tight areas, and breathe throughout the process in order to let the foam roller do its job.
To keep discomfort to a minimum, Denzel recommends that her clients start out with a roller on the softer end of the spectrum. If you have a variety of rollers in your gym, they may be labeled, they may be different colors or you might simply be able to squeeze them to see which one feels the squishiest. More sensation doesn’t necessarily make the experience more effective (and it certainly doesn’t make most people more likely to come back and do it again), so put any “no pain, no gain” beliefs to the side as you roll.
As your body becomes accustomed to foam rolling, you can move on to firmer rollers if you like, but don’t rush it. Using a stiffer foam too early in your practice could actually add to your muscle tightness—or even cause injury. “For most people, the [type of] pain that allows them to breathe, relax and have a sense of release and pleasure is acceptable,” Denzel says. “Pain that makes them not feel safe—in the moment or later—is not. Start small and slowly progress.”
It’s important to note that even a soft roller could be problematic for some people. “A roller applies quite a bit of pressure,” Denzel says. “Even when used appropriately, certain populations—like pregnant women, people with osteoporosis, vascular and cardiovascular illness, tissue injury or peripheral sensitization—may want to only use a roller under the supervision of a doctor of physical therapy or other appropriate health professional.”
Remember: You know your body best. Denzel suggests doing some basic functional movement testing before and after rolling so you can see whether your range of motion improves. “You can start by standing with your legs straight and reaching down to touch the floor. Notice how easy or hard it is. Roll, then come back and repeat the test. Was there a change? You can do the same with a quad stretch, or any stretch. Try it before and after rolling and see if your range of motion changes. If you can notice a difference, it will motivate you to keep doing it,” she says.
If you notice any negative changes, such as increased achiness or less stability after rolling, try decreasing the amount of time you spend rolling or stop entirely until you can work with a movement professional to customize your practice. Just as you should listen to your body when it comes to choosing the right sneaker or pre-run meal, you also need to take note when it comes to recovery techniques like foam rolling and stick with what works best for you.