Foam Rolling for Runners
I have long been a fan of foam rolling to prevent injury and also as part of the recovery process for many common running injuries. In my experience it improves patient self-management of a muscle injury such as a calf strain or the symptoms caused by tight glute muscles as it is a form of self-massage that is very easy to do at home.
So what is it and why bother doing it? And how should you do it properly? Find out here……
What is foam rolling?
When using a foam roller, you use your body weight on the roller to exert pressure on the tissue. The motions used place direct and sweeping pressure on the soft tissue which in turn stretches out connective tissue and creates friction in the layers of soft tissue.
It is often seen as a form of self-massage as the pressure exerted on the tissues resembles the same pressure that is generated by manual manipulation by a Physiotherapist.
Regularly using a foam roller offers many of the benefits of having a sports massage such as improving circulation and tissue flexibility as well as reducing inflammation, scar tissue and stress on the joints.
Using a foam roller pre and post workout can help to you to prepare your muscles for the workout and is known to aid in post workout recovery.
In 2015, Cheatham et al reviewed 14 research articles that looked at the effects of foam rolling and found short term improvements in the range of movement of the hips, knees and ankles after foam rolling. This suggests that using a foam roller as a pre-exercise warm up of the muscles or to reduce muscle tension post exercise is beneficial and likely to improve muscle function and minimise injury during exercise.
They also found that using a foam roller following a bout of high intensity exercise (for those dreaded DOMS!) reduced pain levels and therefore allowed the muscle to function more effectively quicker than when not foam rolling. Another piece of research by Pearcey et al (2015) also found that foam rolling after intense exercise significantly reduced muscle tenderness and again allowed the muscle to function at normal levels much quicker.
Ideally you are aiming to roll up and down the muscle in order to lengthen the fibres which will in turn lengthen the muscle itself. You can also use the foam roller to target smaller adhesions or ‘knots’ within the muscle; just place it under the area of tension and press your weight down until you feel the tension start to ease.
These are my 6 favourite foam rolling techniques for runners;
Support your head gently. Place the roller under your mid back/ shoulder blade area and either just arch your back over the roller (image 1) or lift your bottom and roll up and down (image 2).
Straighten the leg on the side you want to release. Turn your body slightly towards this side and then gently roll up and down. Increase the pressure of the release by placing the foot (on the side that you are releasing) onto the opposite knee and allow the knee to drop out (image 2).
Place the roller under the back of the thighs and roll up and down. Turn the feet outwards and then inwards whilst rolling to focus the pressure on either the lateral (outer) or medial (inner) parts of the muscle . You can also roll one hamstring at a time for a deeper more specific release- just bend the other knee off the roller.
Place the roller under the side of the thigh (not over the bony part of your hip!). Roll up and down from the top of thigh down to just above the knee joint.
Place the roller over the front of the thighs (not too high into the groin!). Roll up and down to just above the knee joint. Roll from side to side to find specific areas of tension.
Place the roller under the calf area and roll up and down from below the knee to just above the achilles/ heel. Turn the feet inwards and roll to focus the pressure onto the medial (inner) muscle, and then outwards and roll to focus the pressure on the lateral (outer) muscle. You can also roll one calf at a time for a deeper more specific release- just place the leg that you are not releasing over the other to increase the pressure exerted onto the muscle.
You shouldn’t just foam roll on the days that you exercise as day to day activity such as sitting at your desk or bending over looking after children can also cause muscles to tighten and become stiff.
It is more effective if you build foam rolling into a daily stretch routine and target the areas that you know are always tight.
As the research shows using a foam roller as a pre-exercise warm up (in conjunction with stretching) has been found to significantly improve muscle function and improve joint range of movement which will also therefore reduce your risk of injury. In addition, a post exercise foam rolling session has been shown to reduce DOMS and return muscle function to normal much quicker so it’s worth spending a few minutes loosening your muscles with your foam roller after you exercise.
What not to do!
Rolling for too long
If you are finding that you need to roll for more than 20 minutes before you feel that the muscles are loosening and feeling more comfortable, then the chances are you have a deeper underlying issue that probably won’t get better with just foam rolling and you need to have it assessed by a health care professional.
Equally if you have been rolling for a week and your areas of tension are not improving or getting worse then it’s worth getting things checked out.
You should only be spending approximately 2-3 minutes rolling each muscle group although this will vary depending on how tight the are is.
Rolling on too hard a foam roller
Particularly if you are new to foam rolling, using a rock hard or textured foam roller can be far too painful (which is very off putting!) and may compress the tissues too much and even cause bruising and tissue damage.
Stick to a smooth but firm density foam roller. The ones that I use are approximately 13cm in diameter and 45cm in length.
And most importantly!
If you have a niggle and using your foam rolling is not helping or making it worse, or you are not sure exactly what to do with your foam roller then make sure to get yourself assessed by a Physiotherapist who can tell you what the problem is and how best to treat it with your foam roller or other self-management techniques such as stretching or strengthening exercises.
Please get in touch if you need advice or help with any sport related injuries or just want to know more about foam rolling and how it can help with injury prevention and recovery or even enhance your performance!
Cheatham, S.W., Kolber, M.J., Cain, M. and Lee, M. (2015) The effects of self-myofascial release using a foam roll or roller massager on joint range of motion, muscle recovery and performance: a systematic review. The International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 10(6), p 827.
Pearcey, G.E.P, Bradbury-Squires, D.J., Kawamoto, J.E., Drinkwater, E.J., Behm, D.G. and Button, D.C. (2015) Foam rolling for delayed onset muscle soreness and recovery of dynamic performance measures. Journal of Athletic Training, 50 (1), p. 5-13.