Last Updated on August 15, 2023 by Heather Hart, ACSM EP, CSCS and Karen Newby, BSc, MPT
We’ve all seen runners and athletes rolling around on foam rollers with grimaces on their faces, looking like they are in a self-inflicted torture session. Furthermore, many of us have been told – by trainers, coaches, or simply social media accounts – that we need to foam roll more.
But what exactly is the point of foam rolling, and is there any research to support its use?
The following guide to foam rolling for runners was written by Karen Newby, BSc, MPT, a physiotherapist and UESCA certified running coach based out of Squamish, BC, with over 16 years of experience working with runners and athletes.
In this guide you’ll find answers to questions like:
- What is foam rolling?
- What are the benefits of foam rolling?
- What are the risks of foam rolling?
- Do runners really need to foam roll?
- What are the best foam rolling exercises for runners?
Disclaimer: This article is provided for informational purposes only. If you are dealing with an injury or other health conditions, we recommend you follow up with a qualified medical professional.
What is Foam Rolling?
Foam rolling is a type of myofascial release used to aid in flexibility (increase range of motion) and decrease muscle soreness. Using a cylindrical compressed foam roll, one provides body weight pressure to the soft tissue underneath while providing a rolling motion over the target area.
Foam rollers are used to apply pressure to the myofascial tissue. Muscles are surrounded by a thin, fibrous, connective tissue called fascia (myofascial tissue) that provides support and protection to the muscle tissue. Myofascial tissue can develop restrictions in its extensibility and adhesions which in turn can limit range of motion and cause pain.
A few theories as to how foam rolling might be working include neural inhibition, increased blood flow and increased heat to the target area.
What are the Benefits of Foam Rolling for Runners?
It seems as though runners and endurance athletes everywhere swear by foam rolling. But what, exactly are the benefits of foam rolling for runners?
Foam rolling is unlikely to be releasing any adhesions in the tissue from the direct pressure on them. We simply cannot provide enough pressure to do this. However, you potentially could be releasing adhesions indirectly through the changes in the nervous system (neural inhibition) from foam rolling.
Increased Blood Flow
Foam rolling can also increase blood flow to the target tissue and therefore increase oxygen transport to the muscle. This increased flow of oxygen to the muscle can aid in decreasing the presence of these adhesions or trigger points. Sullivan et al. (2013) have also theorized that friction from the foam rolling can increase heat in the tissue making it more pliable to stretch and improving the range of motion.
Improved Range of Motion
There is research to support a short term benefit to improving range of motion when used as a warm-up tool (Mauntel et al, 2014, Konrad et al, 2022, Cheatham et al, 2015). A systematic review by Mauntel et al. (2014) showed improvements in range of motion after single treatment sessions as well as after multi treatment sessions.
The increased joint flexibility was seen without a negative effect on performance measures (Cheatham et al., 2015). This is of significance as static stretching to improve joint range of motion has been shown to have a potentially negative effect on performance measures (Mauntel et al, 2014).
It is inconclusive from the research whether or not the benefit of increased joint flexibility is long lasting or not.
Decreased Pain Perception
Used as a post exercise tool, foam rolling has been shown to decrease pain perception after high intensity exercise (Wiewelhove et al., 2019, Cheatham et al., 2015). It can be used to decrease post workout soreness and delayed onset muscle soreness.
To many, foam rolling before or after a run may feel good, or give a runner a sense of “doing something positive” for their body and their running. This in turn may provide a boost of mental confidence, that can be translated into a more positive running running experience.
Are There any Risks to Foam Rolling?
When foam rolling, you should expect some discomfort. However, it should not be sharp or worsening pain from rolling. It is better to start out too gentle than too intense. You can always adjust the intensity at a later time once you know how your body responds to it. You can actually bruise the muscle by rolling it too intensely or for too long.
Foam rolling is considered contraindicated (and therefore should be avoided) for anyone with:
- a bone fracture
- an open wound
- deep vein thrombosis (DVT)
- osteomyelitis (Bartsch et al. 2021).
Caution should also be taken for anyone with diabetes mellitus, neuropathy, osteoporosis, or an acute injury.
Foam rolling over an acute injury will typically exacerbate the injury symptoms. If you are unsure, check with your medical professional.
If you’re already an avid foam roller, and find yourself constantly rolling the same sore, tight spots over and over again, it might be time to take a step back and consider why you are repeatedly tight in that area
The tightness or soreness may be a sign of muscular weakness, muscular imbalance, or a breakdown somewhere in your overall kinetic chain. If this is you, consider visiting a physical therapist to see if you can get to the root of the problem. The answer may not be foam rolling, but rather, strengthening.
Foam Rolling for Runners: How to Get Started
If you’re looking to incorporate a foam rolling routine into your day to day training, keep the following tips in mind:
Choosing a Foam Roller:
Foam rollers are typically sold with a solid foam core or a hollow core surrounded by a layer of compressed foam. They vary in density of the foam as well as surface roughness, ranging from a smooth surface to ones with bumps and grooves.
High density foam rollers will provide more pressure, and you may need to ease into using this type.
A roller with bumps and grooves along its surface may feel more like an intense massage than simply a direct pressure over the tissue.
Research by Debski et al. (2019) did show a greater therapeutic effect with the firmer foam rollers over medium firmness rollers.
Ultimately, which model to choose comes a little bit down to personal preference. If the foam roller is too firm to tolerate then it is not going to be very effective.
How Long Should a Foam Rolling Session Last?
Debski et al. (2019) did a review of the literature looking at parameters of foam rolling. Their research found that the duration of foam rolling is best done between 30-120 seconds with 1-3 sets with a 30 second break in between sets.
It’s important to think of a foam rolling session similar to any exercise: more is not necessarily better.
Should you Foam Roll Before or After Running (or Both)?
For benefits of increasing range of motion, foam rolling before running can be included as part of a warm up. This is important for running as normal range of motion is necessary for injury prevention and performance.
There is also support for foam rolling after running as a post workout tool in decreasing pain perception and DOMs. Exact mechanisms by which it may be working remain a little murky.
Common Foam Rolling Mistakes
Foam rolling is generally safe. However, typical mistakes with foam rolling include:
- too much pressure
- too long a session
- too frequent rolling
- rolling areas with too little muscle tissue (this can be ineffective and painful).
Some areas to avoid foam rolling are:
- directly on the IT band
- the lower back
- across the knee joint
- around the neck.
- Do not roll over any bony prominences.
5 Best Foam Rolling Exercises for Runners
Foam rolling is intended to target specific muscles or group of muscles. Target areas to foam roll should be assessed on an individual basis – meaning, the “best” foam rolling exercises may vary from runner to runner.
However, most runners will find rolling the quadriceps, gluteals, calf and hamstrings the main areas needing the most attention.
Begin each exercise by rolling slowly back and forth along each muscle group for at least 30 seconds. Be sure to breathe and remain as relaxed as possible.
If you feel any sharp pain, or the rolling feels too intense, do not be afraid to back off on intensity by placing more weight into your hands, or avoiding that area completely.
1. Calf Rolling
- Sit on the floor with opposite knee bent and foot on the floor.
- The leg you want to roll is stretched out in front of you with a foam roller placed under the calf muscle.
- Place your hands on the floor behind you for support.
- Lift your buttocks off the floor slightly and begin rolling up and down along the calf muscle between the knee and ankle.
2. Quadriceps Rolling
- Lie face down with the target leg on top of the foam roller.
- Prop yourself up onto your forearms and roll up and down the quad muscle from the hip to the knee.
- You can bias the outer quad or inner quad muscle based on what area feels the tightest.
3. Hamstring Rolling
- Sit with the roller positioned under your thigh.
- Place your hands on the floor behind you for support.
- Lift your buttocks off the ground and roll along the muscle from the sit bone down to the back of the knee.
- Just like the quadriceps, you can bias the inner or the outer hamstring muscle as needed.
4. Gluteus Rolling
- Sit with your gluteal muscles on the foam roller and your arms extended out behind you for support.
- To bias your right hip, you will lean onto the right side and can even sit in a Figure 4 position (with your right ankle placed at the top of your left knee).
- From there, roll up and down along the gluteal muscle.
5. Latissimus Rolling
- Start by lying on your side with your arm stretched overhead and the roll placed under your trunk.
- Roll up and down along your side and back up to your armpit and shoulder blade area.
Final Thoughts: Do Runners NEED to Foam Roll?
As with any training or recovery modality, your results may vary. While some runners may swear by the benefits of foam rolling, others may find it uncomfortable and non-beneficial, getting by just fine without ever foam rolling.
So do runners absolutely need to foam roll? No. But it may be worth giving a foam rolling routine a try to see if the positive benefits carry over to your running!
- Bartsch, K.M., Baumgart, C., Freiwald, J., Wilke, J., Slomka, G., Turnhofer, S., Egner, C., Hoppe, M.W., Klingler, W., & Schleip, R. (2021). Expert consensus on the contraindications and cautions of foam rolling – an international Delphi study. Journal of Clinical Medicine, 10(22), 5360.
- Cheatham, S.W., Kolber, M.J., Cain, M., & Lee, M. (2015).The effects of self-myofascial release using a foam roll or roller massager on joint range of motion, muscle recovery, and performance: a systematic review. The International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 10(6), 827-838.
- Debski, P., Bialas, E., & Gnat, R. (2019). The parameters of foam rolling, self-myofascial release treatment: a review of the literature. Biomedical Human Kinetics, 1, 36-46.
- Konrad, A., Nakamura, M., Tilp, M., Donti, O., & Behm, D.G. (2022). Foam rolling training effects on range of motion: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Sports Medicine, 52, 2523-2535.
- Mauntel, T.C., Clark, M.A., & Padua, D.A. (2014). Effectiveness of myofascial release therapies on physical performance measurements. Athletic Training and Sports Health Care, 6(4), 189-196.
- Wiewelhove, T., Doweling, A., Schneider, C., Hottenrott, L., Meyer, T., Kellmann, M., Pfeifer, M., & Ferrauti, A. (2019). A meta-analysis of the effects of foam rolling on performance and recovery. Frontiers in Physiology, 10(367), doi: 10.3389/fphys.2019.00376.