I’d like to offer some instructional tips for using something that I believe to be a necessity for runners: the foam roller.
I recently received a request from one of my friends Maddy, who has been amping up her regular running, if I could talk a bit about the techniques of foam rolling. Now, I must disclose that I am not even close to certified in anything related to sports science, or real science for that matter. My advice/knowledge comes from having a father who is, quite literally, a sports scientist and from my own experimentation and research. I do a lot of reading on matters related to running, so I like to think I have the fundamentals down—but please know the advice I provide is almost completely based on my own experiences.
With that said…let’s talk foam rolling.
Ah the foam roller. Both the best friend and the worst enemy of nearly everyone who uses it. If you are unfamiliar with what exactly a “foam roller” is, it is very much exactly as it sounds: It’s a log-shaped, rounded tube made of very condensed foam (see above). It is stiff enough to really have an impact, but still has enough give to not make it totally unbearable. You may have seen people at your gym using these contraptions—and chances are they had a very strained/pained look on their face that looked something like this:
Frankly, using a foam roller is somewhat excruciating, but once you develop a bit of a tolerance for them, you’ll find yourself very grateful for these massage tools disguised as torture devices.
The most basic use of a foam roller is to relieve your muscles of their tension. By compressing your muscles (especially your big ones like your hamstrings and quads) you allow more blood flow to get to them which releases the lactate that makes you tight and sore. It’s a very self-intuitive device, and you can really contort yourself to “roll” any part of your body you think needs some tough-love.
As a runner, I primarily use the foam roller for my quads, my hips, and most frequently for my IT band. Your IT band is a thickened tissue that extends from the outside of your pelvis, down your hip, all the way to below the knee. This band is known for causing problems in runners, and it’s often the culprit for knee and hip pain.
I’ve included some pictures along with loose instructions for how to go about rolling your primary running muscles. Remember, the foam roller takes some getting used to—and although it might be unbearable at first, if you stick with it you’ll more than likely find it essential for staying injury free. Also, like I said— this device should be used according to what’s comfortable for you, so the techniques I’ll demonstrate aren’t necessarily the only way to use a foam roller. Just suggestions, this is how it works for me. Also, please forgive the awkwardness of my self photo taking…I spent the entire time trying not to laugh.
Positioning yourself to roll your IT band is a little awkward at first, but you’ll get used to it. For most people who have never foam-rolled before, you might not even know where your IT band is—I sure didn’t! But, due to the all-mighty/pain inducing powers of the foam roller, it’s not too hard to find. Simply angle your hip/upper thigh above the roller until you feel it land on what feels like a band of tissue. It will probably hurt worse than your surrounding quadriceps, so once you feel a wince of pain—you’ve likely hit the IT band gold. You can stack your non-rolling leg on top of the leg being rolled, or you can use your free leg to stabilize yourself and sort-of push yourself back and forth across the roller. I’ve demonstrated the latter, and it’s definitely my preference.
I find that because the IT band covers a large portion of my leg (all of which is used during running), it’s best to roll it out in sections. This way, you can concrete very directly in different areas, giving you a better all-around roll out. The first section I concentrate on starts at the outside of my pelvis, down to just below my hip. I hold a lot of tension here, so I try and work this part really aggressively.
The second section I’ll do is the middle 6 inches or so of my quad. Try and keep the roller primarily on your IT band instead of rolling onto the larger portion of your quad, which can be tempting.
The final section is the area right above my knee. If you are someone who often experiences knee problems with running, rolling this area of your IT band could really help you out. After I finished my first marathon, my left knee hurt so band I could barely bend it—and it was because my IT band had tightened up so much.
I normally try and do about 45 seconds-1 minute per section of the band, or longer if I’m needing extra kneading.
Lots of runners use the roller to loosen up their hamstrings, and it’s helpful because you can actually do both legs at once. Personally, I find that the simple bend over, touch-your-toes approach to stretching my hammies to be more effective than the roller, but every little bit helps.
Position the roller underneath your legs, on the area right below your butt. Hold yourself up with your hands about a foot behind you, and you should be able to move your legs back and forth across the roller. You can get experimental with your positioning, increasing and decreasing pressure in different areas.
Quads and foam rollers have a very love/hate relationship. I’m not going to lie—rolling your quads is intense, and it often takes some conditioning to build up your resilience to it. Nevertheless, it is incredibly beneficial to loosen up such a big muscle, and I personally notice a huge difference in my recovery time between runs when I roll my quads.
The positioning I use for my quads is very similar to rolling the IT band, except I’ll roll a bit more toward my stomach instead of my side. Because the muscle is so big, you’ll probably find yourself rolling side to side in order to cover the whole thing. Again, the device is somewhat self-intuitive and a lot of it just takes some experimentation.
Oh the calves. I know this is where I hold the most tension in my legs, and it’s the area that can always use more stretching and rolling. Typically for working the stiffness out of these muscles, I use The Stick (or, I have someone use The Stick on me), but you can use the foam roller very easily. There are two degrees in which you can roll your calf muscles on the roller, one which is a little less intense, and one that gets a really deep burn.
To roll your calves, position yourself similar to how you would for rolling your hamstrings but with the roller underneath your calves. With your arms bent behind you, hoist yourself up and move your legs back and forth across the roller. This is the first level of calf rolling—it shouldn’t be too uncomfortable, and you can play around with the force by alternating how much weight is in your arms.
If you need a more deep-tissue, intense calf roll, you can place one ankle over another, placing all your weight onto one calf. You’ll definitely notice a difference in how much the distribution change alters the pressure, but just go slow, grit your teeth, and know that your calves are loving it.
Yep, running can hurt your bum. Your piriformis muscles, particularly, can get really tight and give a pinched feeling in the middle of your cheeks. Not fun, but foam rolling can definitely help with any pain in your rear—particularly because it’s such a big muscle, and therefore needs some intense massaging to really loosen the tension.
Rolling your piriformis muscle is very similar to the way you situate yourself for your IT band, but instead of positioning the foam roller under your hip, you put it directly on your butt. If your piriformis is tight, you’ll definitely know when you find it, as you’ll feel a bit of a sharp pain when the roller is under it.
It sounds a little weird, but you should just kind of go to town in terms of rolling out your rear. It’s a tough group of muscles, and so you’ll be able to really roll the heck out of them. And, you’ll be thankful when you don’t feel the pinching feeling of mad piriformis muscles during your runs!
So, there’s a basic overview of foam rolling your primary running muscles. Of course, you can also roll your back and even your arms—but this should suffice as a start to the fundamentals of the roller. So next time you’re at the gym, give one a try. You might feel silly contorting yourself over this strange device, but know that when used appropriately and correctly it is very beneficial to your muscles. There’s a reason why many physical and sports therapists have these buggers in their offices—they are intended to provide a quick, intense, and thorough relief session for your muscles. Once you get more accustomed, the pain of it does start to turn into more of a hurt-so-good massage feel, especially when you know your muscles are in need of the blood flow.
I actually own my own roller, which I bought when I was injured, and although I was a little apprehensive about their pricing, I will say that I think they’re worth it. They are normally around $25-$30, which I know seems expensive for a hunk of foam, but I consider it an investment in injury prevention, which is worth a whole lot!
Let me know if you have any questions! I’ll do my best to answer. Again, I’m no expert, but I’m definitely in a healthy and stable relationship with my roller.