The Complete Guide to Foam Rolling for Runners

The Complete Guide to Foam Rolling for Runners

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Foam rolling for runners is like having your very own sports masseuse – without paying hundreds of dollars.

But why do runners need to foam roll? How do you do it properly?

We answer all of these questions (and so much more) in The Complete Guide to Foam Rolling for Runners!

Note: This post may contain affiliate links, meaning, if you click through and make a purchase, we may earn a commission to help keep the site running. This is at no additional cost to you. Opinions are entirely our own.

Why is Foam Rolling Important for Runners?

You might be wondering, ‘what’s all the hype about’? Why do runners foam roll anyway?

And that’s a fantastic question.

It’s crucial to know the reasons behind things before blindly following fitness trends, right?

Well luckily foam rolling isn’t a useless trend…it’s quite handy for runners (and indispensable for many).

Foam rolling is a form of self-myofascial release. It puts pressure on the soft tissue to release tightness, increase blood flow and aid in muscle recovery, and more.

It’s like having a tiny little masseuse on hand all the time.

CompletetheCircuit.com cites the National Association of Sports Medicine (NASM) to identify the 6 main benefits of myofascial release by foam rolling:

  1. Corrects muscle imbalances
  2. Improves joint range of motion
  3. Relieves muscle soreness and joint tightness
  4. Increases blood flow to muscles for better nueromuscular efficiency
  5. Relaxes the muscles
  6. Lengthens muscles and breaks up adhesions

Runners can see why all those great benefits of foam rolling for runners are key to quicker recovery and injury prevention.

 

Should Runners Foam Roll Before or After a Run?

Foam Rolling for Runners - When to Foam Roll

Either!

Foam roll before a run as part of your warmup routine. It gets the blood flowing and is a good supplement to dynamic stretching.

Alternately, you can foam roll after a run to help reduce muscle soreness later.

Try to avoid over-foam rolling though.  Self-myofascial release massaging is very beneficial when done appropriately, but can lead to injury if done too often

 

A Quick Word of Caution

Foam rolling is intended to help your body, not harm it.

Never foam roll an inflamed muscle and always stop if you feel any pain.

Yes, foam rolling for runners can be uncomfortable when done properly but it should never be painful. Use caution and care, and stay attuned to your body’s signals.

 

6 Classic Foam Rolling for Runners Moves

There are more than 6 ways to use a foam roller, but these 6 are classic staples that all runners should do regularly. Especially if you’re a long distance runner or are training for a race.

For all moves, slowly roll the foam roller across the muscle, as deeply as you can without it becoming painful. Do not speed-roll. Slow and steady wins the foam roller race for this.

If you come across a knot or tight area, hold the pressure on that spot for 20-30 seconds.

Note: in the pictures, I am using a textured foam roller, but use whichever one you want to suit your needs (see How to Choose a Foam Roller in the section below).

 

1.) Calves

Foam Rolling for Runners - Calves

Sit on your butt and put your arms behind you. Put the foam roller underneath your calves and lift your butt off the ground (like in the picture. Now use your arms to roll the calves over the foam roller.

You can do one leg at a time, or both, whichever works best.

 

2.) Hamstrings

Foam Rolling for Runners - Hamstring

For the hamstrings, get in the same position as when you did the calves, but place the foam roller under the upper legs.

Hamstrings sometimes need more pressure (unless you have sensitive hamstrings, then use caution and go lightly to start). For a little extra pressure, push your hand on top of the thigh and press down.

Be very careful not to foam roll under your knees! If you are having tightness or pain in your knees, the problem is likely from another muscle (like your hip, pateller tendon, quads or IT band)* but you should not foam roll directly on or under the knee.

 

3.) Quads

Foam Rolling for Runners - Quads

This foam rolling move is kind of like a high push up, with your quads on the foam roller.

Use your arms to slowly roll from the upper thigh to just above the kneecap (remember, no foam rolling over the knee, it can lead to injury).

Foam rolling the quadriceps helps loosen muscles that can cause knee pain, so this move is especially important for runners.

RELATED: 8 Easy Strength Training Moves for Runners (that are so good you’ll need to foam roll!)

 

4.) Glutes

Foam Rolling for Runners - Glutes

For the gluteal muscles (aka the butt muscles, or glutes), you should cross your leg on the side you’re foam rolling to get at the muscle nicely.

See the pictures for form. Slowly roll the foam roller front to back and side to side on the glute, focusing on any tight areas.

 

5.) Inner Thigh (Adductor Muscles)

Foam Rolling for Runners - How to Foam Roll the Adductor Muscle

Foam Rolling for Runners - How to Foam Roll the Adductor Muscle
Lower position for more pressure

Oh, the inner thigh. Such an awkward move. But very helpful.

It’s no secret that runners use their leg muscles intensely (duh), but many runners forget about the inner thigh (aka adductor muscles).

These muscles do well with slow, low pressure or specific location pressure for 20-30 seconds.

Side note: I tore my adductor hopping onto a curb while running too fast and the muscle now has a tendency to tighten…so after every run, I apply 20-30 seconds of pressure in the knotted areas along the muscle. My physical therapist showed me this move and I was like….whattttt, you want me to do THAT in front of all these people!? How awkward….but it works soooo well!

 

6.) Shins

Foam Rolling for Runners - Shins

Use the softer foam roller when foam rolling the shins. It’s more padded and won’t hurt your shin bones.

Be gentle with this one – put a little pressure and see how it feels. If you experience any sensitivity, stop foam rolling and remove this one from rotation.

 

Bonus: IT Band

Foam Rolling for Runners - IT Band

There is much debate about whether foam rolling the IT band is good or bad.

Technically, the IT band is tissue, not muscle. This means the act of rolling it will not work the same way as if it were a muscle.

Many runners self-diagnose tightness in their upper leg, specifically on the outer side, as being an IT band issue. When really, many leg and knee issues are caused by muscle weakness or imbalances surrounded the IT band (like hips or hamstrings, etc) that result in pulling on the IT band.

That being said, some runners still report that foam rolling their IT band and lower hip area feels good, irregardless of whether or not it’s functioning in the same way it does with muscles.

So I leave you with this: always consult a doctor or physical therapist before doing anything you’re unsure of. But if you want to foam roll your IT band, the picture above demonstrates the form and arm/leg placement. This is another awkward move, especially at first, until you’re used to it.

 

How to Choose a Foam Roller

Foam Rolling for Runners - How to Choose

Ready to learn how to choose a foam roller in 2 easy steps?

Step 1: Pick a Density

I had no idea there were different foam roller options out there when I started foam rolling. But there are, and it matters.

White Soft Density Foam Rollers are perfect for beginners. They are more porous and have more “give” when applying pressure. Beginners sometimes hate foam rolling because their muscles aren’t used to pressure like that…but using the soft density foam roller helps ease your muscles into it a little more gently.

I like this Basic 18″ or 24″ Foam Roller on Amazon because it’s durable (and has free shipping).

Foam Rolling for Runners - White Low Density Foam Roller
Basic, but it does the trick

 

Black Medium or High Density Foam Rollers provide more intensity because they are way more dense, and are best suited for runners who have already been using the white soft density foam roller.  You’ll know when it’s time to make the switch – when the soft density one doesn’t feel intense anymore. Switch when you need more pressure.

I like the AmazonBasics High-Density 36″ Foam Roller because it’s under $20 (while others are more, why?).

36″ is best for overall body usage.

 

Textured/Deep Tissue Massage Foam Rollers are for advanced needs and provide very intense massage pressure on your muscles because of the ridges.

I like this TriggerPoint Grid Foam Roller because it’s got a variety of ridges (I use different areas depending on the body part I’m foam rolling) and it’s under $20.97.

My calf muscles especially love the ridges on this bad boy.

Step 2: Select a Size

Foam rollers come in various lengths and widths. But the most common ones for foam rolling for runners are the 36″ length and the 12″ length (which is perfect for traveling with).

Select size based on when and why you’re going to use it.

Mostly foam rolling your lowers body (the 6 classic moves described above)? Then go for the 36″ length.

Need it for your upper body too? Or will you bring it when traveling? Choose the 12″ length instead.

 

Other Self-Massaging Tools for Runners

While foam rolling for runners is the most common form of self-myofascial release, you have other choices too.

 

Tiger Tail Roller Massage Stick

Foam Rolling for Runners - Massage Roller

Commonly accepted as one of the best hand-rollers for tired muscles, the Tiger Tail hand roller is $29.95 on Amazon for the 18″ length version and provides quicker muscle recovery and increase mobility (the same as the foam roller, but it’s quicker and more portable).

 

Massage Balls (Smooth or Spiky)

Foam Rolling for Runners - Smooth Massage Ball
Image credit: https://amzn.to/2LBTYlH

Use smooth dense balls for trigger-point targeting of knots or on your feet. Feet get sore too (as us runners know) and keeping the foot muscles limber helps prevent injury (and just plain feels good too).

These Kieba Massage Lacrosse Balls are only $9.99 on Amazon and perfect for the job.

 

 

Foam Rolling for Runners - Spiky Massage Ball
Image credit: https://amzn.to/2O9hyYY

Target with precision with the TriggerPoint MobiPoint Textured Massage Ball (for just $10.50 on Amazon). Perfect for (more intense) foot massages too, and targeting specific spots (calves especially) with a little more intensity than the smooth ball.

 

Roll Recovery

Foam Rolling for Runners - Roll Recovery tool
Image credit: https://rollrecovery.com/

Bring in the big guns with this bad boy.

Designed by runners, for runners, the Roll Recovery tool has muscle built in with spring-loaded power for an especially intense massage session.

 

Now you know all about foam rolling for runners, what NOT to do, and how to choose the right foam roller!

What’s your favorite foam rolling move? What works best for you? Tell us in the comments!

 

You Might Also Like:

How to Increase Running Endurance

How to Run Faster in 30 Days or Less

 

 

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*HowtoRunGuide.com is not a doctor or physical therapist. If you have any questions about your body or are having any pain, please see a licensed professional before doing any foam rolling.

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