How to Foam Roll for the Best Results

David Liira

This can help you run better!
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

In the past ten years, foam rolling has exploded in popularity. These days, you can’t enter a fitness facility without coming across at least a few soft tissue devices. Unfortunately, along with this huge spike in interest has come a ton of misinformation. While foam rolling can assist your performance and health outcomes, many of us are giving rollers more credit than they truly deserve.

Today we’ll briefly address the main myth around foam rolling, and then look at some simple strategies to maximizing the effects of this tool. It’s shocking how easy foam rolling is, yet far too many people get it wrong due to misinformation on the web. If you can foam roll correctly, you’ll be sure to level up your fitness/running game in no time!

Here’s what you need to know.

Foam rolling for running 101.

As a quick note, please know that foam rolling isn’t always the answer. If you’re overtraining, it’s probably not ideal to beat up your muscles more with a roller…they likely need some rest. Additionally, some injuries are caused by imbalances up or down the chain and the issue isn’t rooted at the painful site. An example of this would be a spinal injury that causes the hamstrings or calves to feel extremely tight. In this case, it’s in your best interest to address the injury as opposed to trying to untighten the muscles of your lower body.

With that out of the way, let’s get into the good stuff!

The main myth around foam rolling is that it achieves self-myofascial release (SMR). Guess what? It doesn’t. Fascia is a band or sheet of connective tissue that surrounds and stabilizes muscles and organs. During physical activity, adhesions or fibrotic scars can build up within layers of this tissue. To achieve true myofascial release, these two sites (whether between muscle and skin AKA fascia superficialis or between two muscle fibers AKA fascia profunda) need to be able to slide past one another.

When we’re foam rolling, there is no relative motion of these two layers because we’re simply compressing the tissue. This is due to foam rollers being unable to grab onto a tissue layer and hold it in place as another glides past.

Even if rolling did accomplish relative motion, there is little evidence to show that it would result in permanent tissue changes.

So if foam rolling isn’t SMR, is it still worth doing for runners?

Foam rolling can be an effective tool for warming up.

This is especially true when you combine it with dynamic stretching and mobility drills. There is a clear correlation between rolling and a temporary boost in functional range of motion and flexibility which can enhance physical performance.

Additionally, rolling is an effective way to stimulate the nervous and cardiovascular systems, preparing the body for physical exertion. Please note, however, that these effects are caused by neural factors, and do not cause any concrete biomechanical changes. Nevertheless, this is a powerful tool for improving your readiness for running and other related activities.

Foam rolling can assist with cool-down, and even reduces DOMS.

Although the mechanisms are still fairly unknown, it has been proven that rolling does decrease the sensation of DOMS (delayed-onset muscle soreness), or that tight, achy feeling in your muscles for 24–72 hours post-workout.

The cause of these changes seems to be related to a reduction in smooth muscle tension and the increase of pliability following the application of pressure. It is also likely that the coinciding improvement in arterial function and parasympathetic activity is related to these recovery benefits. Specific mechanisms aside, there are dozens of studies confirming that foam rolling can cause an immediate effect at the cool-down phase, along with a decreased perception of muscle-related soreness in the days following.

On a slightly different note, foam rolling can also assist in acute pain relief. This is through a mechanism called neural inhibition. In short, rolling can cause neural changes at a muscular site, diminishing the sensation of pain through altering nociception at the spinal cord — interrupting the pain message if you will. Unfortunately, this effect typically only lasts around 5 minutes.

If foam rolling can benefit my running and recovery, how do I do it properly?

There are five main keys to getting foam rolling right. They are as follows…

  1. Materials — Your foam roller or massage ball must be relatively hard. As a general rule, there should be less than 1–2cm of ‘budge’ in your roller, and your massage ball should be harder than a tennis ball (lacrosse balls are a fantastic option).
  2. Pressure — This must be just below your pain threshold. If you think you have high pain tolerance, you must be very cautious. Going too hard can result in muscle bruising, so always back off if your body starts giving you warning signs of major pain or discomfort.
  3. Location — Always focus on rolling the muscle belly and NOT on bones, tendons, or ligaments. The structures of these tissues are different than muscle, and they won’t react to rolling beneficially.
  4. Pattern — There are two main patterns. You can either roll longitudinally along the entire belly or get a little more creative and navigate around a localized spot that hurts. It will take time to discover what techniques work best for your body. Oftentimes, a healthy mix of both is ideal.
  5. Time — To get the best results, roll each muscle for 30 seconds to 1 minute.

In closing,

While there is a ton of misinformation out there about foam rolling, it can still be a powerful tool for your running if you use it correctly. All you need to worry about is the five simple steps above. Ensure you’ve got the right equipment, pressure, location, pattern, and timing, and you’ll be sure to enhance your performance on the roads and recovery after your workouts.

Don’t let another day go by without leveling up your running with foam rolling!

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Kinesiologist & Blogger. 15k+ followers. Dedicated to writing relevant, up-to-date pieces on health and the human condition. My job (and joy) is to save you time and money by delivering the tools you need to take control of your own wellbeing.


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