There is a magical recovery tool that can help you warm-up for your run, recover faster from your run, and prevent injuries. It’s called a foam roller. And there are a ton of benefits of foam rolling including relief of sore muscles and joints and increased mobility.
In fact, I tell my athletes to prioritize foam rolling for recovery over stretching. I put it up there with sleeping and eating—it can be that powerful.
For a while, the jury was still out on foam rolling. There hadn’t been a huge comprehensive study that proved it could help you recover faster or prevent injuries, but more research is being done and the evidence is there—it can!
Related: Free Run Training Plans
This dovetails with the foam rolling loyalists’ experiences who believed it helped even if the science didn’t back it…yet.
In this article, I want to give you the 411 on foam rolling so you can start using it to recover faster, prevent injuries, and even perform better. I will cover:
- What is foam rolling?
- The benefits of foam rolling according to research
- The best foam rollers on the market
- When and how to foam roll, and
- Top foam rolling mistakes to avoid.
So, let’s roll! (Aren’t I clever…)
What is foam rolling?
Foam rolling is a type of self-massage using a cylinder made of foam. A person will put their weight on the roller and move up and down over their muscles to reduce muscle tension and soreness, and increase mobility.
Specifically, foam rolling is a type of self-myofascial release recovery technique that aims to relax myofascial tissues—tough membranes that wrap, connect, and support your muscles. These tissues can become stiff or adhere to the muscles causing pain and discomfort.
Runners will foam roll after running to help release the myofascial tissue as well as to promote oxygen-rich blood flow to the damaged muscles which expedites healing.
Foam rolling before running can help warm up the muscles by increasing circulation.
What are the benefits of foam rolling?
The benefits of foam rolling include decreased muscle and joint soreness and stiffness, improved recovery, and increased mobility.
Studies have found the following benefits of foam rolling:
- Improves delayed onset muscle soreness (also known as DOMS)
- Can help prevent injuries
- Improves muscle tenderness and pressure pain threshold after exercise
- Betters flexibility, mobility and stiffness in joints and muscles
- Improves muscular time to exhaustion and strength
- Can correct muscle imbalances
- Improves neuromuscular efficiency and hypertonicity, and
- Reduces trigger point sensitivity and pain
Is foam rolling good for runners?
Foam rolling great for runners because it enhances recovery, mobility, and possibly even performance. The benefits of foam rolling for runners include:
- Increases blood flow
- Decreases inflammation
- Increases relaxation, flexibility, and range of motion, and
- Decreases muscle soreness and pain.
How often should I foam roll as a runner?
Aim to foam roll at least once per day as a runner after a run. The benefits of foam rolling aren’t time-dependent so you can foam roll right after the run or even hours later.
Personally, I foam roll while my kids are in the bath despite running 12+ hours earlier. I still feel the benefits!
You can also quickly foam roll your leg muscles as part of your warm-up.
Is it better to foam roll before or after a run?
If you must choose between foam rolling before or after a run, you’ll get more benefits from foam rolling after a run.
You can foam roll before you run for about 30 seconds on each major leg muscle group to promote blood flow and assist with your warm-up.
You can foam roll after a run to help the muscles recover faster and decrease muscle soreness. Aim for 2 minutes on each major leg muscle group.
How long should you foam roll after running?
There is no set limit for how long you should foam roll after a run but aim to foam roll major leg muscles for 2 minutes to get benefits.
You don’t have to foam roll immediately after a run to get benefits. Any time later in the day is beneficial!
When should I foam roll?
You can do light and quick foam rolling before your run and any time after your run. There is no compelling evidence to show an optimal time to foam roll for recovery.
I know mother runners are busy so just aim to foam roll at some time before you go to bed. I leave my foam roller in a visible spot like on my bed to serve as a reminder to take a few minutes to do it.
If I don’t have time to foam roll all the major muscle groups on my legs, I just hit the tender areas like my hamstring and quad which are both recovering from injuries.
Related: Running on No Sleep: Do or Don’t?
What are the best foam rollers on the market?
There are a gazillion foam rollers on the market. Type in foam rollers in amazon and you’ll get a wide range of products and prices starting as low as $12. All foam rollers are beneficial, but they aren’t all created equal.
Below are my top 3 favorite foam rollers.
- Rollga Roller: The Rollga roller is my all-time favorite foam roller because it combines the trigger point capabilities of lacrosse balls with that of a roller so that you can hit those tight muscles and fascial adhesions. The bumps go along the entire roller so it’s possible to hit both legs at once, saving you time.
Specs: Hard foam 18×6, $50
- Trigger Point GRID roller: The Trigger Point GRID roller has a grid design with multi-density foam to mimic a therapist’s hands. And it does! It is less intense than the Rollga roller yet does an amazing job hitting those kinks.
Specs: multi-density foam 13×5.5, $40
- Gimme 10 Foam Roller: This Gimme 10 foam roller is less gentle and more intense with its more pointed bumps to target muscle kinks. In fact, it has left bruises on my legs—so word of warning. If you like hard massages, this roller is for you!
Specs: Hard foam, 12.5 x 5.5, $30
Foam Rolling Tips for Runners
- Foam roll major muscle groups.
- Roll in the direction of the muscle, not across it.
- Avoid bony areas, internal organs, spine, lower back, and tendons like the IT band.
- Foam roll major muscle groups for 30 seconds before running as part of a warm-up.
- Foam roll major muscle groups for about 2 minutes after running as part of your cool-down.
- Apply static pressure on particularly sore spots but not for too long.
- Do not aggressively foam roll. It should not hurt!
When should not foam roll?
You should not foam roll if:
- it is painful
- suffer from osteoporosis
- have an acute injury
- you are on blood thinners or have a blood disorder
- have nerve damage or pain
Your Foam Rolling Guide for Runners
Here’s how to foam roll major areas of your body!
Foam Rolling for Your Quads
- Start in a plank position with the foam roller positioned under your thighs, on your quad muscles
- Shift your weight forward and backward to slowly push the roller from just above your knees to your hip flexors
- Repeat this process for 30 seconds to a minute, stopping at any particularly tender areas you feel
Foam Rolling for Your Calves
- Sit on the floor with your calves resting on your foam roller and one leg crossed over the other
- Use your hands to lift your body up, putting your body weight on the foam roller
- Push and pull yourself forward and backward, letting the roller massage your calves
- Do this for 30 seconds
- Return to a sitting position, switch legs, then repeat
Foam Rolling for Your Back
- Lay on the floor with the foam roller under your upper back
- Use your legs to push yourself into a bridge position
- Use your legs to push and pull yourself over the foam roller, from your lower neck to the middle of your back
- Take time to go slowly over any particularly sore areas
- Repeat this process for 30 seconds
Foam Rolling for Your Hamstrings
- Sit on the floor with one knee bent and the other straight, with the foam roller placed under the hamstring of your bent leg
- Using your hands, lift your body and rest your weight on the foam roller
- Using your hands and your bent leg, push and pull your body weight to move your hamstring over the foam roller
- Repeat this process for 30 seconds
Reference the infographic below from Adidas for tips.
I’d love to help you with your running goals. Check out my run coaching services for more information.