Foam Roll The Right Way

A woman wearing a sports bra uses a foam roller

For any serious runner, regularly-scheduled massages can be a critical part of maintenance and injury prevention. But if you don’t have the time or the money to get them, a foam roller can be an effective at-home alternative.

“Anybody who is running on a regular basis should be foam rolling as a general precaution for longevity,” says Mike Ross, an exercise physiologist at the Gottlieb Center for Fitness, which is part of Loyola School of Medicine in Illinois.

Foam rollers work because they target trigger points, says Ross. “Those are portions of the muscle that become hyper-contracted due to overuse, abuse, or not being given enough rest time to rebuild,” he says. To maintain some integrity, the muscle hyper contracts and starts to build up scar tissue.

“Often they have existed there for many years and have been referring and causing problems in the areas where they connect, but you don’t know they are there, and they don’t hurt until you roll over them,” he says.

How it works

The foam roller acts as a sort of blunt instrument for the big muscles. Rather than a person’s hands working on the body to pinpoint problem areas, you’re using your own body weight and the roller to find the trigger points and the scar tissue. When you roll over the scar tissue with a foam roller, the bump you feel is the scar tissue. The pressure you apply with your body weight against the firm surface of the roller physically breaks down that scar tissue —it flattens out that bump—says Ross. What’s more “the time you spend on the bump sends the neurological message to the body to relax and release that contracted muscle.”

“It’s worth it to reduce chances of injury in the long term,” he says. He likens it to having one slightly flat tire on a car. “If you’re just driving to work every day you’ll be fine. But if you’re doing a cross-country trip it’s going to rear its head and cause a problem,” Ross says. “The more mileage you do, whatever imbalances you have—and probably everybody does have them—will probably manifest more as things get worse and time progresses.”

Foam rollers tend to be most effective with the larger muscle groups, like the calves, quads, hamstrings, and IT Band, Ross says. The real hot spots for most runners tend to be the upper and outer quads, the outer and inner parts of the calves. That said, there is a right way and a wrong way to use a foam roller. Follow these tips to get the most benefits from your foam roller.

Time It Right

The most effective time to foam roller is after a run, says Ross. But if you foam roll before a workout or on a rest day, warm up first. Make sure to do at least five minutes of any movement that gets blood flowing to the muscles, like easy running or even jumping jacks, says Ross. Then, foam roll and stretch.

Do It Every Day, as needed

Until you work through problem spots, you can probably benefit from foam rolling after each run, says Ross. Once the area improves, you might back off to do it less often.

Roll With Integrity

One of the biggest mistakes people tend to make is just rolling lightly over a muscle group without purposely looking for a trigger point, says Ross. This is a decent way to warm up and bring blood flow into the muscles, but it doesn’t offer greater benefit, he says. “Your work with the foam roller should be purposeful and systematic,” he says. “You should work at different angles until you find the bump of the trigger point. Spend time on that area instead of rolling over it quickly.”

Hold It For At Least 30 Seconds

To get the benefits and effectively send the message to the brain and the body that the muscle should relax, don’t just speed through the foam-rolling sessions,warns Ross. “In order to send that message, you need to be still with the pressure on that point for at least 30 seconds before the body starts to receive it.”

Expect It To Hurt At First

Brace yourself: it may be highly uncomfortable the first time you find those trigger points and attempt to break them down with the foam roller—just as it would be with a very intense massage. “The first time is going to be the worst,” says Ross. “You may be breaking down what has been built up over 30 years.” But stick with it, as each successive session with the foam roller should feel slightly easier. Once you break up the older tissue, it won’t be as painful, as you’ll just be working through whatever scar tissue has developed since the last workout, Ross says. “It should feel better every time,” he says.

Adjust If You Need To

If the discomfort is too overwhelming, find ways to decrease the pressure, says Ross. You might take some of the pressure off the roller by adjusting your body position, placing your hands or your other leg on the floor for support.

Choose The Right Roller

The harder the surface of the roller, the less it will give, and the more intense the pain is going to be, says Ross. It’s a good idea to start with a standard white foam roller, like you see in many gyms. “That’s a little bit softer, and should allow you to roll and the pain is not so excruciating,” he says. Over time, you may be able to graduate to a foam roller with a harder surface.

Watch The Joints

Avoid rolling over knees and ankles. “You don’t want to be rolling over the joints, and there are no trigger points there anyways,” says Ross. “It’s not beneficial to put a lot of pressure on the tendon where it’s connecting to a bone.”

Ease into it

Spend no more than 20 minutes total on a foam rolling session so that you don’t overwork your tissues. You should focus on each muscle group for no more than 90 seconds before you move on to the next area, and repeat the cycle a few times with a bit of dynamic movement in between to encourage blood flow. Overworking an area can cause bruising and generally do more harm than good.