Flexibility Series for Runners: Part 3: Foam Rolling

It’s the fitness recovery task we love to hate. Let’s face it: the older we get, the more help we need to recover from our workouts. And our bodies beg the question: why does foam rolling hurt so good? 

In Part 1 of this series, we talked about why foam rolling is thought to be beneficial. The hypothesis is that when we do intense workouts like running, our muscles become inflamed and stick to the overlying fascia, reducing our overall mobility and flexibility and causing discomfort. Foam rolling is thought to help break up these adhesions, to signal the body’s stretch receptors (golgi tendon organs) to relax, and improve overall mobility, preparing your muscles for static stretching.

But what exactly is fascia, you ask? 

The simplest way to explain is to use a real life example. If you have ever eaten chicken on the bone, you may have encountered this fibrous, stretchy muscle covering and not realized it. It looks white-ish and somewhat translucent, and you definitely found some if you separated one muscle belly from another. (Another reason I don’t eat meat anymore!)

What tools can we use to foam roll?

Types of rollers are abundant. Even discount stores like Five Below have them. I’ve bought a few from places like Ross, TJ Maxx, and Marshall’s, who always seem to have a few kinds in stock, from smooth to bumpy. And then there are the Cadillacs of models that do things like vibrate and heat. If you aren’t used to foam rolling, try getting a smooth version that is a bit squishy; it will be more comfortable for you. 

You can also buy stick rollers, again, cheap to expensive. I love my stick roller from Five Below as much as my $20 version from Target. Then there is The Stick, which our local Richmond Fleet Feet owner loves to demonstrate to runners at group events. These are far more portable than their foam roller versions, and they don’t require you to lie on them. You simply rub them along the muscle belly, applying as much pressure as is comfortable to you. I often find using stick rollers more comfortable when I’m really sore!

How do I foam roll?

Using your foam roller is easy. I try to do this one or two times a week, and especially on long run day after my shower when my muscles are warm again, doing some static stretches after. Just lie down on the floor on your foam roller, and roll back and forth. Focus on one muscle group at a time for about a minute each. You want to roll over muscle bellies, not on ligaments, tendons, or bony prominences. This process should feel comfortably uncomfortable, if that makes sense, but not necessarily painful. 

Short video demonstrating all the tools under the “foam rolling” umbrella. Concentrate on one muscle group for about a minute each for best results.

Did you catch that trick?

Warm muscles respond better to any flexibility training. That includes foam rolling. So working on foam rolling and static stretching after your post-run shower or epsom salt bath is a great time to do this. It’s one of the premises behind hot yoga. 

What about massage guns?

Yes, I include the latest recovery craze under the foam rolling umbrella. If you want to invest in this tool, you can’t get away with cheap like you can with rollers or sticks. As a rehab clinician, I use the Hypervolt in the clinic, and this is the brand I personally use at home. There are comparable versions on the market, but I would not recommend the $15 model from Five Below for this tool. Costco has a version there for around $100 that has been reviewed well. 

Massage guns work on the same premise, but the percussion and vibration of these devices are a different kind of stimulus than the friction and pressure of foam rolling. If you are lucky enough to have a partner who is willing to hit areas you can’t, like your posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes, and calves), low back, etc., consider yourself blessed. My CrossFit fanatic husband and I often help each other out with this when we are feeling particularly beat up. 

Spending a minute or two on each major muscle group after a run or workout can help reduce discomfort, increase circulation to the targeted muscles, and improve mobility. Again, focus on the muscle bellies, avoiding bony prominences (the gun will actually bounce off of these) and ligaments or tendons. But do try this on the bottoms of your feet. It feels like heaven! 

What about using a lacrosse ball?

It’s true that I have one of these in my arsenal of self-torture tools as well. These are great for targeting trigger points, smaller muscles, and the bottoms of your feet. What are trigger points, you ask? If you’ve ever had a small knot in a muscle, this is a trigger point. These are generally the size of your fingertip. (If you have a large, raised, perhaps superficial area that is very painful and/or warm and seemingly in a muscle, this is NOT a trigger point. Seek medical attention!) 

To use the lacrosse ball, just sit on the ball and roll over any sore spots. If a lacrosse ball is too firm, try a tennis ball instead. This is a popular means to release a tight piriformis muscle, that tiny little complainer deep under your glutes. If you need to target a spot in your upper back, place the ball in the toe end of a long sock, throw it over your back, and use the end of the sock to align the ball as you press into a wall. The ball is also a great way to massage the bottoms of your feet! Simply stand on the ball, press, and roll. 

Putting it all together:

  1. Dynamic Stretches pre-run to prepare your body for the work ahead. You can also incorporate short, static stretches to problem areas. If this is your long run, take the first mile or so fairly slowly to fully warm up. See Part 2 of this series for more details.
  2. After your run, ideally take some time to utilize one or more of these methods under the foam rolling umbrella prior to static stretching. If this isn’t practical, say, for example, after a big group run or a race, try to do this after your shower at home, when your muscles are warm again from the hot water. 
  3. Static stretching. Again, if it’s not practical to foam roll after a run, do at least a few static stretches. And it’s always a solid plan to fit in a good static stretching session after foam rolling. More on this in my next article in this series. 

More on my Flexibility Series for Runners:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 4

I hope this information was helpful to you! Do you currently incorporate foam rolling into your flexibility training and/or recovery from workouts? I’d love to hear about it! As always, I hope you all are safe and healthy. Happy running!

*I offer this advice as a courtesy, and bear no responsibility for injuries incurred if you take my advice. Please consult your doctor if injured.*

Published by annecreates

I am a physical therapist, wife, mom, runner, artist, and vegan. I'm passionate about helping others find wellness! Assistant Coach for the Sports Backers Marathon Training Team. Current ambassador for: Nuun, Switch4Good, and Foot Levelers Blue Ridge Marathon 2021.

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