Foam Rollers for Runners – an Introduction

I get asked about foam rollers A LOT! So here’s my take on them.

I love them.

But I hate them!

Foam rollers are great for many different reasons. They can be used for exercises such as proprioception (balance training); for stretching tight chest muscles over; mobilising a stiff thoracic spine and of course performing self massage, to name but a few uses!

When people ask about them, they are 99% of the time referring to the self-massage use – more accurately known as self-myofascial release.

So – how does it work? Well, to understand that, we need to understand the term myofascial. ‘Myo’ means muscle. That’s pretty obvious and we all know what a muscle is. Fascia is a type of connective tissue which encases all of our muscles, tendons, ligaments, organs and pretty much everything in our bodies. It is a continuous web of fibrous material from the tip of our toes to the top of our heads.

Research has demonstrated that the condition of this tissue can actually have an impact on our overall flexibility, just as much as the muscles themselves do. Self-myofascial release (SMR) is a way of stretching out both the muscles and the surrounding fascia yourself. It can improve the condition of the tissue and help break down any scar tissue sand adhesions.

That all sounds pretty good right? So why do I also hate them? Well…. the number one reason is that they just downright hurt! Performing SMR on most areas is pretty uncomfortable. In some areas it’s just plain painful! So for that reason I hate them on a personal level – even though I know it’s doing me good it’s against my nature (as with most ‘normal’ people) to cause myself pain!

Secondly, whilst I think they can be effective, I don’t think they are the answer to every little problem as they are often sold to be! SMR can be an adjunct to hands-on treatment and a suitable rehab program. On their own, they aren’t going to cure any problems. Whilst your happily rolling away – ask yourself why that area keeps getting so tight – the answer is an imbalance or movement dysfunction, not that you aren’t rolling enough!

How do I use it? There are loads of ways you can use a foam roller for massage – depending on which body part you want to work on! The video above is from our friends at which demonstrates how to use the roller for calf muscle massage – something most runners will want to try, especially if you suffer from tight calf muscles when running.

There are no hard and fast rules regarding how SMR should be performed. My general guidelines are:

  • Start at the distal part of the area to be rolled (i.e. furthest from the heart) and work up towards the heart – just as a massage therapist would do
  • Start with light pressure for the first couple of rolls and build up the weight through the area
  • Move slowly with purpose – don’t just be ironing it up and down!
  • Stop at any tender points for up to 10 seconds – you will often feel a release in the muscle tension
  • Perform between 3 & 5 rolls of each muscle group at a time
  • 2-3 times a week is usually sufficient

For runners, I feel they are most successfully used when treating the calf muscles; quads and hip flexors and rotators of the hip (in the bum!). They are particularly good for Piriformis syndrome.

Many people will use them for IT band release, although personally I don’t really see the point. The IT band itself cannot be short or tight and so rolling it to me seems like a waste of time – and a really painful one at that! You’d be better off working into the TFL muscle with a small ball to release tension and trigger points here which affect the IT band and working on strengthening the hip abductors.

So there you go – a quick guide to foam roller SMR! There really is loads more detail I could go into here so this is just a beginners guide. If you have any specific questions please feel free to ask away by leaving a comment below!

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