A Comprehensive Guide to Foam Rolling for Runners

A Comprehensive Guide to Foam Rolling for Runners

What if something could improve recovery, decrease soreness, and possibly have positive long-term effects on performance for only ten minutes per day? Would you do it consistently? Foam rolling happens to be exactly that for runners: a simple way to facilitate better recovery, improve range of motion, and feel generally better even in high training loads. 

Foam rolling is not a magic bullet, but it is the most effective soft tissue recovery tool after sleep and good nutrition/hydration. You do not need fancy Normtec boots or a complex stretching routine; you simply need a foam roller and ten minutes. 

Listen to the Tread Lightly Podcast episode on Foam Rolling!

What Does Foam Rolling Actually Do for Runners?

According to a 2020 controlled laboratory study published in The Journal of Athletic Training, foam rolling decreases muscle soreness, improves joint proprioception, and even reduces the total force loss that occurs with post-exercise muscle damage. 

Foam rolling is more than just releasing muscle knots. Let’s dive into the mechanisms of how foam rolling works:

  • The mechanical pressure of foam rolling on the muscle fascia may reduce neural excitability, meaning you perceive less soreness. 
  • Muscle stiffness alleviates with foam rolling, and in turn allows the muscles to store more elastic energy, thus improving performance.
  • Foam rolling reduces the neural inhibition that comes with muscle damage, thus promoting quicker recovery.
  • Foam rolling nearly immediately improves range of motion (mobility). Consistent practice of foam rolling improves mobility in the long term. 
  • Long-term consistent foam rolling improves circulation and may even lower blood pressure. 

What Muscles Should I Foam Roll?

You want to avoid sensitive areas such as the abdomen and cervical spine/neck. For runners, muscles to foam roll include the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, calves, small stabilizers of the hips (TFL, psoas, etc), upper back/thorax (rhomboids, lats, etc), and bottoms of the feet. 

Use a large foam roller (such as this one) for bigger muscle groups such as the quads, hamstrings, and calves. Use a small ball (such as a lacrosse ball) for smaller muscles such as the gluteus medius, iliopsoas, bottoms of the feet, and rhomboids. Beyond those basics, you do not need fancy rollers; those two tools can target every desired muscle.

Foam rolling can have a delocalized effect, which is why total body foam rolling is important at each session. Muscle soreness can often manifest in a different location than its cause. For example, sore calves may actually be due to tightness in the hamstrings. So runners want to foam roll everywhere, not just what feels sore. 

How to Foam Roll:

  • If foam rolling produces pain, swelling, or prolonged redness, stop.
  • Roll in the same direction as the muscle fibers. For example, the quadriceps group fibers run vertically, so you should foam roll from top to bottom. 
  • Begin with gentle pressure and slow passes. If that feels good, gradually increase pressure. If you find a tight spot, concentrate on that for a few seconds. 
  • Spend at least 30 seconds but no more than 2 minutes per muscle. 
  • Be cautious when foam rolling along your back! Do not use the foam roller directly on your spine unless otherwise instructed.
  • Do not foam roll muscle groups in the abdomen. 

Foam Rolling Mistakes to Avoid

Foam Rolling too Aggressively

The goal of foam rolling for runners is reducing soreness – not to beat your muscles into a pulp. Any foam rolling that causes pain or increases soreness is counterproductive. This is the most common mistake runners make with foam rolling. 

Start with gentle pressure for the first few passes and then gradually increase as feels appropriate. Foam rolling should never hurt nor should it cause bruising. Do not spend more than 2 minutes on any given muscle; 30-60 seconds is the ideal duration. 

Only Foam Rolling after Runs

Foam rolling is quite useful as a recovery protocol; but if you are only using it after runs, you are missing out on some of its benefits. Foam rolling before runs can be an effective warm-up technique. 

Foam rolling decreases muscle soreness. If you are stiff and sore before a run (such as an easy run the day after a hard workout), a short, gentle foam rolling session may help you feel better on your run. 

Foam rolling applies pressure to the muscle fascia. When that pressure is applied, mechanoreceptors in the muscles (the Golgi tendon organs) send a signal to the central nervous system. In response, the central nervous system relaxes the muscles. For injury-prone athletes, this can reduce the chances of muscle strains during exercise. It can also improve mobility, which in turn improves performance. 

Unlike static stretching, foam rolling does not inhibit performance. So while the research varies as to whether it actually improves performance, you can rest assured you are not harming your performance. 

If you do foam roll as part of your warm-up, be mindful of the pressure applied. You want shorter bouts (~20-30 seconds) with gentler pressure. A pre-run foam roll should not feel like a deep tissue massage! 

Foam Rolling An Injury

One big mistake? Foam rolling an active injury! If you pull a hamstring on a run and then come home and start foam rolling, you could be worsening the injury.

Protection is one of the first steps to an acute injury. Never, ever foam roll on an acute muscle injury (within the first 72 hours). If you have any suspicion of a bone stress injury (such as hop test failure), absolutely under no circumstances should you foam roll. The pressure can worsen a stress fracture. 

Foam Rolling Your IT Band

Your IT Band is not a muscle; it is a piece of connective tissue, similar to a tendon. Please for the love of running, do not foam roll your IT Band. It will only make existing pain worse! Instead, foam roll the surrounding muscle groups, particularly the tensor fascia latae (a hip muscle) and vastus lateralis (the quad muscle closest to your IT band. 

When NOT to Foam Roll

Just as with a massage gun, not everyone should use a foam roller. If in doubt, speak to your doctor or physical therapist.

Do not use a foam roller if you:

  • are on blood thinners or have a blood disorder
  • have peripheral neuropathy or other nerve damage
  • have osteoporosis
  • are dealing with an acute injury, especially redness or swelling




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8 Responses

  1. I had tight calves last week but had a long run with a group on my schedule.
    So I foam rolled my calves before the run and was very apprehensive that this would do the trick. Amazingly, it worked wonders!
    Oh, and I also foam rolled after the run, of course. 😉

  2. I totally agree that foam rolling should be done everywhere, not just where something feels tight! One of my rollers has a curve to allow for foam rolling my back without putting pressure directly on my spine. Its great because I love rolling out my back! I am usually pretty good about foam rolling consistently, but lately I’ve been neglecting it a bit.

  3. This is a really great, comprehensive guide, Laura. Thanks for sharing it! I love how you included mistakes to avoid too. I’ll be using these tips!

  4. I am a huge proponent of foam rolling! I like to do a quick roll pre run and then a longer foam rolling session later. I have a few different models that I like for different areas.

  5. I sing the benefits of foam rolling all the time! All your info is spot on.

    Luckily after a bout of IT pain early in my running career (which almost ended it before it started), so far, knock on wood, that’s been quiet. I do roll on the side of my leg — sometimes. I know that I’m not rolling the actual tendon, and I do feel the benefits for me.

    But yes, don’t roll a tendon usually or an actual injury!

  6. I didn’t think about rolling before runs or during other times. That’s pretty interesting and something I will have to adjust.

  7. Thanks for the great info. I have a foam roller but rarely use it even though I know I should but never really knew why I should. This post clears up a lot.

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