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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 has found its way into the mainstream, and even everyday runners are devotees of “rolling.”

Because foam rolling can assist a runner in warming up, recovering, and other areas of fitness, it is worth considering. Add it to your routine, and you will start to understand its benefits. To get you started, here are some example exercises, and tips on how to use a roller 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. And they often connect to other benefits: muscle massage, warm up, and post-exercise.

Muscle Massage

Foam rolling is an excellent way to deal with tired, sore muscles and inflammation. One particular  study found that male participants who used a foam roller had less muscle soreness than those who did not. And that’s not a unique result.

In addition, the study found that the men who used a roller performed other exercises better than those who did not. This suggests that 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.

Rolling before a workout or run can also assist in increasing the effectiveness of the workout. A little bit of time rolling beforehand helps your body make better usage of muscle fibers.

Post-exercise

Foam rolling is especially useful for runners because it aids in decreasing 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. Elite athletes in many sports use massage as part of their recovery. But everyday people like you and me don’t have the time or money for professional massages after every run. Foam rolling is an easy, quick, and effective way to reap the same benefits.

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

Individual needs differ, and so there are a variety of foam rollers that provide different benefits.

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.

For those who need a gentler touch or for those who want to ease into a foam rolling routine, smooth rollers are the best option.

Contoured

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

The bumps and ridges make the experience more like getting a massage from a masseuse, as there are many ways to apply 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.

If you are new to foam rolling, one on the softer side is a good place to start. You can adapt slowly to the process of rolling out your muscles if your equipment doesn’t push you too hard. After a while, you 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. Try a few, then select the foam roller that is going to best serve your needs.

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 a roller delivers. 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 a first foam roller because they have a variety of uses. Long foam rollers work especially well for back massages. The extra length means it can cover the entire width of your torso, with room to spare.

In addition, due to their length, long rollers are more stable than shorter rollers. That stability helps when you are massaging quads and hamstrings.

Standard

A more typical foam rollers is around two feet, or 24 inches. This size 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, a small travel size might make sense. Typically 4-12 inches in length, small rollers are ideal for portability as they can easily fit into a suitcase. Some even collapse flat to pack down even smaller. They can also be used if there is limited floor space in a workout area.

foam roller hands

Other Styles

Rollers can 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 from using a vibrating roller.

Exercise physiologist Polly de Mille says that vibrating rollers seem to go a step further than the average foam roller, increasing tissue release.

Other experts suggest that vibrating rollers are not necessarily replacements for standard foam rollers, but additions. Vibrating models may allow individuals to reach areas they wouldn’t be able to 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 your first time using a roller.

Heated Roller

As the name implies, a heated roller is a combination heating pad and foam roller. If you are experienced with rollers and want something a little bit more intense, try a heated roller. For some people, heat makes foam rolling that much more enjoyable.

In addition to the benefits of a regular foam roller, a heated roller will raise tissue temperature and increase 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, you should perform foam roller sessions when muscles are warm. After a workout is an ideal time.

If you have 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 you first get into foam rolling, spending no more than 15 minutes a day on a foam roller is sufficient. In addition, 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. (Because technically, you just did!)

Finally, check with a physician before starting to foam roll if you 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 you can do with a foam roller.

Glutes and hamstrings

You can exercise your 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. Then slowly roll down the leg toward the knee to work the hamstrings.

Customize this exercise by increasing or decreasing pressure by using both legs or by using only one leg. In addition, roll 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, you can exercise your 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, be sure to roll with feet turned in and out. If it’s too much pressure, simply use one leg.

IT Band

The IT band stretch with a foam roller can be painful, but it’s also very successful. Lie on your side with the roller below the hip. If you are looking for a lot of pressure, make the top leg in line with the bottom leg.

For less pressure, bend the top leg to provide better balance and support. Then simply roll from the hip to the knee, making sure to pause if there are any tight spots.

Finally, 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 sometimes attributed 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 to safely crack your 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, your back will crack as you roll 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 make great yoga props. They help with extra balance and allow you to release your 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.

You 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. Your body will have to work harder to stabilize, helping to develop a stronger core.

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

Stretching

Foam rollers are great for helping to extend stretching. Use a foam roller to increase your range of motion during a hamstring stretch, or a laterals stretch. In addition, foam rollers can be used to provide extra support in a hip flexor stretch.

Improving Balance

While you can purchase other devices like balance boards and discs to help build 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 your needs, there are a wide variety of rollers and exercises out there to add diversity to your fitness routine.

See the best foam rollers for running

The Wired Runner