Using a foam roller can help improve mobility pre and post workout, decrease soreness after runs, speed perceived recovery following training, (possibly) increase strength during resistance training workouts, and for a lot of runners – it just feels good!
But there’s one thing rolling doesn’t seem to do according to current research – it doesn’t prevent injuries.
There are a ton of misconceptions spread by running articles and social media influencers these days, and foam rolling as an injury prevention method is one of the most common.
Foam rolling – especially in combination with mobility and strength exercises – helps manage muscle length, blood flow, local chemistry, and feelings of soreness, but it doesn’t increase long-term muscle or tendon strength, joint control, or active tissue rehabilitation. That’s what good training and strength exercises are all about!
Bottom line – use foam rolling for how you feel and move today and this week. But your injury risk as a runner is still best managed by smart training and other supportive recovery methods. More on that below.
So what’s the best way to get the most of foam rolling? Try the following:
- Perform 2-3 sets of 30-60 seconds of low pain (1-3/10 on an RPE scale) applications to tight or sore large muscle groups (quads/hamstrings/calves/glutes/thoracic + lumbar paraspinals/lats/etc.)
- 2-4x/day may be ideal, but 1-2x/day is probably sufficient.
- Perform rolling after dynamic mobility exercises. (Walking knee hugs/leg swings/bear crawls/MYRTL hip routine/etc.)
- Roll following running workouts. Perform pre or post strength workouts.
- Roll consistently. Benefits seem to diminish or flat out disappear if you haven’t applied foam rolling in the last 5-7 days.
- Do your rolling in combination with sciatic nerve glides after a tough workout. My personal experience is that this decreases delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS)!
What should you NOT do with a foam roller?
- Don’t roll on areas where you can’t apply relaxed, comfortable pressure. If it feels sketchy, it probably is sketchy.
- Never apply a foam roller or deep pressure to an area with sharp pain, pulsing, or “sparkly”/shooting sensations. You’re likely compressing bone, nerve, blood vessels, or other sensitive tissue.
- Don’t roll on the area of a recent or active stress reaction or fracture. (Duh.)
- Sensitive sites with little soft tissue cover (like your knee cap or fibular head) won’t benefit from deep pressure with a foam stick. Don’t roll them.
- Don’t use a roller on an area of active infection or compromised skin (healing scars/blisters/etc.)
- Only roll on what you know. I see a lot of videos of people using rollers, olympic weight bars or PVC pipe (!) to jam into the gut to “mobilize” their hip flexor tendons. Seriously?! Some very sensitive structures (including the appendix) have their home in your abdomen – and most sit well in front of the hip flexor tendons. Do you think you can be selective with a stick or a bar? If you can’t isolate the muscle or tendon with your index finger, it’s probably best to not jam a roller into that area. Stick to stretching the hip flexors.
- Skip the “IT-Band” rolling if you’ve had ITB Syndrome type symptoms for more than a few days. One option is to try rolling the glutes instead. Gluteus minimus has a referral pattern that can often mimic ITBS. You’re also probably better suited performing hip strength exercises like single leg bridges, TRX squats, side leg raises with your hip extended, and sideways mini band walks. If it doesn’t resolve or symptoms worsen, find a local Physical Therapist who specializes in treating runners and athletes. Look for a PT with an Orthopaedic (OCS) or Sports (SCS) certification. You can search for specialists here.
Injury prevention for runners still seems to be a product of smart training, a minimally effective dose of strength work, regular restorative sleep, sound stress management, and a nutrient dense diet that balances calories with sustainable performance and weight loss needs.
Questions/comments are welcome below.
Move better. Move forward.
Research links for the nerds:
- Neurodynamic mobilization and foam rolling improved delayed-onset muscle soreness in a healthy adult population: a randomized controlled clinical trial.
- The Effect of Foam Rolling of the Hamstrings on Proprioception at the Knee and Hip Joints. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6413844/
- Four weeks of roller massage training did not impact range of motion, pain pressure threshold, voluntary contractile properties or jump performance. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6159503/
- Is self myofascial release an effective preexercise and recovery strategy? A literature review. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25968853
- Clinical Relevance of Foam Rolling on Hip Extension Angle in a Functional Lunge Position.
- Acute Effects of Foam Rolling, Static Stretching, and Dynamic Stretching During Warm-ups on Muscular Flexibility and Strength in Young Adults https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27736289