Foam Rollers: How To Use Them for Maximum Benefits

For many years, foam rolling was a technique that was used only by professional athletes, coaches, and therapists. Now it is a much more common exercise, used regularly by everyday runners.

Because foam rolling can assist a runner in warming up, recovery, and so many other ways, it is worth considering foam rolling, its benefits, some example exercises, and how to use the technique for maximum benefits.

What is foam rolling?

Also known by the more scientific term—self-myofascial release—foam rolling is a type of self-massage that helps release and alleviate muscle tightness or trigger points. When pressure is applied to specific parts of the body, it aids in the recovery of muscles and helps them to return to their normal function, ready to perform whenever needed.

What are the benefits of using a foam roller?

While there are countless benefits of using a foam roller, three advantages in particular stick out, as they often connect to other benefits: muscle massage, warming up, and post-exercise.

Muscle Massage

Foam rolling is an excellent way to deal with tired and sore muscles and inflammation. Although more research is needed, one small study found that male participants who used a foam roller had less muscle soreness than those who did not.

In addition, the study found that the men who used a foam roll performed physical exercises better than those who did not use a foam roller. This study suggests that foam rolling can help runners feel better both during and after their runs.

Warming Up

In addition to muscle massage, foam rolling is helpful in warming up and preparing for a run. If muscles are properly warmed up and the body is loosened before a workout, the chances for an injury decrease.

Foam rolling before a workout or run can also assist in increasing the effectiveness of the workout by training and using more muscle fibers. In this way, individuals can get more out of a workout by spending more time foam rolling beforehand.

Post-exercise

Foam rolling is especially useful for runners because it aids in decreased recovery time. After working out, muscles and joints experience a build-up of waste products like lactic acid.

When foam rolling is performed post-workout, it helps to flush the acid away by bringing new blood and nutrients to the fatigued muscles.

Exhausted muscles can recover and rebuild faster the more nutrients they receive for recovery. Thus, foam rolling helps speed up the recovery process.

See the best foam rollers for running

What are the differences between foam rollers?

There is no one-size-fits-all for foam rollers, as they vary widely based on surface texture, density, size, and even specialty types.

Surface Texture

Depending on the needs of an individual, different people will prefer different surface textures for their foam rollers.

Smooth

Smooth foam rollers are useful for individuals who are new to foam rolling because they provide even pressure across the entire roller. They tend to be less expensive than contoured or textured rollers, and the pressure is not as intense as a textured roller.

For those who need a gentler touch or for those who want to adjust to foam rolling, smooth foam rollers are the better option.

Contoured

Contoured foam rollers have knobs and ridges that allow an individual to apply pressure in different ways and in different intensities, giving that person a more targeted massage.

Contoured foam rollers are more like getting a massage from a masseuse, as there are many ways to apply different amounts of pressure in different locations.

Density

Foam rollers range in density from very soft to very hard. Typically, the color of the roller indicates its density. White tends to be softest while black is the hardest. Blue and red rollers tend to have a medium density, but this can vary by company.

Individuals who are new to foam rolling likely would prefer one on the softer side so that they can adapt to the process of rolling out their muscles. After a while, they can graduate to a denser and harder foam roller. These are more useful for long-term use because they are more durable.

It’s important to find the proper density as a roller that is too soft will not provide the pressure needed while a roller that is too dense could cause bruising and pain. An individual needs to select the foam roller that is going to best serve his or her needs based on their physical goals.

Length & Diameter

In addition to density, foam rollers can vary based on shape and size. Different lengths allow individuals to target different types of muscles and can be helpful in achieving the greatest physical benefits from foam rolling.

A different diameter can also impact the type of massage that an individual receives. Typically, foam rollers have a diameter of 5 to 6 inches. Foam rollers with a shorter diameter like 3 to 4 inches, however, can provide a deeper massage.

Long, Full Body

Long foam rollers tend to be around 36 inches. Typically, they are a good choice for an individual’s first foam roller because they have a variety of uses. Long foam rollers work well for back massages because they can span the length of an individual’s back when placed lengthwise on the back.

In addition, due to their length, long foam rollers are more stable than shorter rollers, which can be helpful when individuals are massaging their quads and hamstrings.

Standard

Typically, foam rollers are around two feet or 24 inches. This size of foam roller is ideal for smaller areas like the calves, which many runners want to target. Standard rollers are also good for the arms.

Small Travel Sizes

For those who have to travel a lot whether for work or for pleasure, they may be interested in small travel sizes. These types of foam rollers are typically 4-12 inches in length and are ideal for portability as they can easily fit into a suitcase. They can also be used if there is limited floor space in a workout area.

foam roller hands

Other Styles

Rollers can also get pretty high tech, and some people who have used foam rollers for years have updated to the new technologies.

Vibrating Roller

Because vibrating rollers are a relatively new phenomenon, there still haven’t been enough studies to determine exactly what benefits these specialty rollers provide. However, studies suggest gains in flexibility when an individual uses a vibrating roller.

Polly de Mille who is an exercise physiologist at Hospital for Special Surgery says that vibrating rollers seem to go a step further than the average foam roller, increasing tissue release.

Experts suggest that vibrating rollers are not necessarily replacements to foam rollers but additions, as vibrating rollers may allow an individual to reach areas that he or she wouldn’t be able to do so otherwise.

Vibrating rollers, however, should be used with caution. They are not designed to be used over bony parts of the body or over organs. In addition, it is a pretty intense experience to use one and could be painful if it is an individual’s first time using a roller.

Heated Roller

As the name implies, a heated roller is a combination of a heating pad and a foam roller. If an individual wants something a little bit more intense, he or she can try a heated roller. For some people, heat makes foam rolling that much more enjoyable.

In addition to the benefits from a regular foam roller, a heated roller with its heat therapy can also assist in reducing muscle stiffness, raising tissue temperature, and increasing circulation. This means an improved range of motion and faster healing.

Tips for using a foam roller

As with many things in life, foam rolling takes practice, so while the concept is simple, it may take time to figure out how to reach and work some areas. Ideally, an individual should perform foam roller sessions when muscles are warm or after a workout.

If someone finds an area that seems to be particularly painful, it is likely a trigger point, and the best solution is to hold the current position of the foam roller until the area softens.

When individuals first get into foam rolling, spending no more than 15 minutes a day on a foam roller is sufficient. In addition, those people should rest a day in between sessions when first starting out.

This may come as a surprise, but it’s important to drink plenty of water after a session of foam rolling similar to if you had received a sports massage.

Finally, individuals should be sure to check with a physician before starting to foam roll if they are pregnant, have any heart or vascular illness, or have chronic pain.

Man exercising with foam roller in fitness studio

Foam rolling exercises

As mentioned above, foam rolling can be used to massage and exercise a variety of muscles. Below are just a few examples of exercises that people can use with a foam roller although likely not a vibrating or heated roller.

Glutes and hamstrings

Individuals can exercise their glutes and hamstrings through a simple stretch. Sit on top of the roller and begin gently rolling back and forth to release any tight spots in the muscles and then slowly roll the foam roller down the leg toward the knee to work the hamstrings.

Individuals can customize this exercise by increasing or decreasing pressure by using both legs or by using only one leg. In addition, people might consider rolling with the feet turned in and turned out to cover the entire muscle group.

Quads

By laying on top of a foam roller and working the front of the thigh from the hip to the knee, an individual will exercise his or her quads. This stretch also can be adjusted by using one leg to decrease pressure and support some of the bodyweight or using both legs for a deeper stretch.

Calves

Calves can be stretched and exercised by placing the foam roller under the calves and slowly rolling from the knee to the ankle. For a stretch that works the entire muscle group, individuals should be sure to roll with feet turned in and out. If it’s too much pressure, an individual can simply use one leg.

IT Band

The IT band stretch with a foam roller can be painful, but it’s also very successful. Individuals must lie on their sides with the roller below the hip. If an individual is looking for a lot of pressure, he or she should make the top leg in line with the bottom leg.

If not, the individual should bend the top leg to provide better balance and less weight. Then an individual must simply roll from the hip to the knee, making sure to pause if there are any tight spots.

Finally, the individual should flip over and repeat on the other side. It’s important to be very gentle with this stretch, as it can be quite painful.

Some experts, however, caution against rolling the IT band, as the pain an individual sometimes attributes to the IT band is actually coming from the hip.

Upper back

If no one else is around, a foam roller is a great way for an individual to safely crack his or her back. Simply place the roller on the floor and lie back on the roller with the hips slightly off the ground. Gently roll the back over the foam roller, pushing the torso away from the feet.

Typically, an individual’s back will crack as he or she rolls back towards the feet. At the same time, it’s important to move slowly and stop immediately if there is any pain.

Blonde woman doing hard aerobic exercise. Studio shot

Other foam roller uses

The usefulness of foam rollers doesn’t stop at massaging or exercising. They can also be used for other physical goals like yoga and stretching.

Yoga Prop

Foam rollers can also be used as yoga props for some extra balance or to allow an individual to release his or her muscles more easily than with a yoga block. Two ways foam rollers can be used as yoga props include during the savasana pose and the extended triangle pose.

Strengthening Core

One of the best core exercises is the plank, and one of the best ways to engage more core muscles with a plank is using an unstable surface like a foam roller.

An individual can accomplish this goal in one of two ways: place one or both hands on the top of the roller or slide the roller under the toes. The body will have to work harder to stabilize, helping to develop a stronger core.

If using a full-sized foam roller seems too intimidating, an individual could start with using a half roller that has a flat bottom to work up to a full-sized roller.

Stretching

Foam rollers are great for helping to extend stretching. An individual can use a foam roller to increase his or her range of motion, as is a hamstring stretch or a laterals stretch. In addition, foam rollers can be used to extra support as in a hip flexor stretch.

Improving Balance

While individuals can purchase other devices like balance boards and discs to help build their balance, a foam roller can work in a similar fashion. It can be used for a rolling lunge with the back foot on top of the roller, slowing rising up from the lunge and drawing the roller towards the body.

Conclusion

In the end, foam rollers are an excellent tool for runners. Depending on the needs of an individual, there are a wide variety of rollers and exercises out there to suit whatever need a person has.

See the best foam rollers for running

The Wired Runner