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A runner’s guide to foam rolling

By Henry Howard


For runners, recovery is just as critical for their success, longevity and enjoyment as is the miles (or kilometers) they put in during the week. Recovery covers a wide range of factors including getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet, and healing one’s muscles, tendons and tissues.


While I could do better with sleep, my diet is healthy and I do commit to a near-daily routine of active recovery work that includes foam rolling and massage.


I’ve written previously about some massage tools that I use, including this full-leg massager and smaller ones that are ideal for traveling. But today I’m going to focus on what I also do nightly as a way to recover, my runner’s guide to foam rolling.


Here are some key questions and answers about the practice that will help protect runners from injury.


What should runners know about foam rolling?


Foam rolling helps relieve muscle tightness and soreness. The pressure from rolling over muscles helps increase blood flow and break up adhesions or “knots” in the muscle tissue.

Focus on major muscle groups like your quads, hamstrings, calves, IT bands and glutes. These are common trouble spots for runners.


Roll slowly over tight areas for 30-60 seconds, applying as much pressure as is tolerable. Don't roll directly over bones or joints. Stick to the muscle bellies.


Breathe deeply as you roll.


You can foam roll at night before going to bed, or after runs when your muscles are warm.


Foam rolling may cause some discomfort at first on very tight areas, but it shouldn't be extremely painful. Moderate the pressure as needed.


How does a foam roller help runners?


Here are some of the ways foam rolling helps runners:


Increases flexibility and range of motion. Rolling out the major muscle groups used in running like the quads, hamstrings, calves and IT bands can increase flexibility over time. The pressure and movement helps lengthen and release tight muscles.


Reduces muscle soreness and aids recovery. The massage-like effect of rolling helps relieve muscle tightness and adhesions that contribute to residual soreness after runs. This can speed up recovery between hard efforts.


• Prevents injuries. By keeping muscles loose and pliable, foam rolling reduces the risk of developing overuse injuries common in runners like IT band syndrome, plantar fasciitis and muscle strains.


• Improves blood flow. Rolling puts beneficial pressure on muscle tissue that temporarily restricts blood flow. When the pressure is released, this drives fresh oxygenated blood to the area to promote healing.


How frequently should a runner use a foam roller?

This depends on multiple factors such as the runner’s injury history, frequency and length of running, and fitness level. As a masters athlete who focuses on marathon and ultras, I foam roll at least five times a week, usually more. Other runners may see the benefits with just two or three times a week.


The key is to make foam rolling a consistent part of your routine, not just something you do when muscles are sore or tight. Committing to regular foam rolling can provide significant benefits for flexibility, recovery and injury prevention.


What is the proper way to use a foam roller?


Here are some tips for using a foam roller properly:


Start on the floor. Lie on the floor or mat, and place the roller under the muscle group you want to target. Having your body weight pressed into the roller allows you to apply more pressure.


• Use your arms. Keep your arms extended and use them to control your body's movement over the roller. This allows you to adjust the amount of pressure.


• Go slowly. Roll the targeted muscle over the foam roller with smooth, controlled movements about 1-2 inches per second. Don't roll too quickly.


• Apply pressure. Use your body weight to apply as much pressure as is tolerable on the tight areas. Increase pressure gradually.


• Focus on tension. When you find a tight, knotted area, pause for 30 to 60 seconds and allow the muscle to relax over the roller.


• Breathe deeply. Take deep breaths while holding on the tight spots to help the muscle release.


Cross friction. Roll slightly inward and outward across the muscle fibers for a deeper massage.

How often should I replace my foam roller? How do I know when it is time to get a new one?


There's no definitive timeline for when to replace a foam roller, as it depends on how frequently you use it and the type of roller. However, there are general guidelines on when it may be time to get a new one.


Inspect the outer surface of the roller for signs of it breaking down. If you see significant dents, rips, peeling, or the foam is breaking down and crumbling, it's probably time for a replacement. A damaged surface won't provide the smooth rolling needed.


Over time and with repeated use, even dense foam rollers will start to lose some of their firmness. If your roller feels significantly softer and spongier than when you first got it, its ability to apply pressure is compromised.


Some rollers can develop an unpleasant odor after being exposed to sweat, oils and dirt over time. An odor indicates the materials have begun breaking down.


And, just like in running, listen to your body. If the roller stops feeling effective, it's probably time get a fresh one to maximize the massage benefits for your muscles.


Proper foam rolling takes time but can provide excellent self-massage benefits when done correctly and ensure that runners can continue their training plans healthy and injury-free.



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