The 6 Benefits Of Foam Rolling + 5 Reasons Why NOT To Foam Roll

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A foam roller is a staple instrument in a runner’s toolkit. They offer an effective and affordable way for runners to improve recovery and reduce soreness, and there are benefits of foam rolling you can take advantage of.

You’ve probably used one yourself, and if you have, you know that they can be eye-wateringly painful. No pain, no gain, right?

There are right and wrong ways to use a foam roller. When done correctly, it can offer lots of benefits, but if done incorrectly, you may be doing more harm than good.

Using the foam roller on your legs is generally easy to perform and can be readily incorporated into your pre-workout or post-workout recovery routines.

In this article, we’ll take a look at what the science has to say about foam rolling to give you a clear and precise idea of when you should and shouldn’t utilize it.

We’ll be rolling out the following:

  • How Does Foam Rolling Work?
  • 6 Benefits Of Foam Rolling
  • 5 Reasons Not To Use A Foam Roller
  • Foam Rolling: Top Tips
  • Foam Roller Exercises

Let’s jump into it!

Foam rolling calves.

How Does foam rolling work?

There is a lot of anecdotal support for the use of foam rolling, but what does foam rolling do?

In a study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, researchers aimed to determine whether foam rolling could alleviate soreness and enhance recovery.

They investigated the effects of a foam rolling regimen on post-exercise soreness after a series of squats. The study found statistically significant effects on muscle soreness, range of motion, and vertical leap. Although this study didn’t specifically target runners, the results can still provide some insight.

It is believed that foam rolling works by manipulating the body’s connective tissue.

However, the exact mechanism by which foam rolling reduces soreness, enhances recovery, and increases range of motion is still not fully understood.

When engaging in exercise, the connective tissue can be damaged, resulting in the activation of pain receptors and a reduction in muscle activation. Foam rolling may help to repair the connective tissue damage, leading to a decrease in soreness after a hard workout.

Although the exact mechanisms by which foam rolling works are still unclear, the fact that someone feels better after foam rolling is a good thing!

When used as a complement to other aspects of our training, foam rolling is a great option. But it should not substitute other forms of recovery, such as strength training and sleep.

Foam rolling hamstring.

6 Benefits Of Foam Rolling

Foam rolling is a cost-effective and efficient tool for runners.

Here are 6 foam roller benefits:

#1: Reduces Muscle Soreness

Foam rolling can be an effective way to reduce muscle soreness after a run.

Running can cause tightness and soreness in the muscles, which is not only uncomfortable but can also impede future performance.

A foam rolling routine has been shown to reduce muscle soreness one, two, and three days after a heavy squatting session.

By applying pressure to specific areas using a foam roller, runners can release tension and alleviate soreness in their muscles.

Foam rolling IT band.

#2: Increases Flexibility

Foam rolling has been found to offer a statistically significant increase in muscle flexibility and range of motion.

Over time, running can cause muscles to become tight and inflexible, which can lead to a higher risk of injury.

Foam rolling can help to increase range of motion and reduce the risk of injury by breaking up adhesions in the muscles and fascia.

#3: It’s Cost Effective

Foam rolling is a cost-effective way to provide soft tissue manipulation to your body. Although they’re not as specific as a good sports massage, they do the job.

There is no evidence to show certain foam rollers work better than others. Although there is some evidence to suggest harder foam rollers are more effective.

You can usually buy one for less than $20, and they last for a very long time.

Foam rolling glute.

#4: Improves Performance

In the results of the study mentioned earlier, foam rolling had a statistically significant positive impact on vertical leap performance after a heavy squatting session.

It is thought that foam rolling can help to increase blood flow and oxygen delivery to the muscles, which can improve overall performance.

By increasing blood flow to the muscles, foam rolling can help to increase energy levels and endurance, allowing runners to perform at their best.

#5: Enhances Relaxation

Foam rolling can be a relaxing activity as it can help to reduce stress and tension in the body, as long as you do it in a sensible manner.

By promoting relaxation, foam rolling can help runners to recover more effectively and feel more refreshed and energized after a run.

Feeling more refreshed and relaxed can give you the confidence to head out on your next run!

#6: Prevents Injuries

Foam rolling can help to prevent injuries by improving flexibility, reducing muscle tightness, and promoting better circulation to the muscles.

By keeping muscles loose and flexible, runners can reduce their risk of injury and stay healthy and strong for their next run.

Foam rolling quads.

5 reasons not to use a foam roller

We’ve answered the question, “What does foam rolling do?” and looked at the benefits of foam rolling. But what doesn’t it do, and what should you be careful of?

It’s not all sunshine and roses; here are six reasons you may not want to use a foam roller:

#1: It Can Be Really Painful!

Foam rolling can be extremely uncomfortable, especially for those new to the practice.

If your body is excessively tight, foam rolling can be so painful that the muscles don’t get a chance to relax. For runners with sensitive or injured areas, foam rolling can cause pain and further aggravate symptoms.

Take your time when foam rolling and build up your tolerance over a period of sessions, not seconds.

#2: It May Not Be Effective For Everyone

As mentioned earlier, a lot of the proposed foam roller benefits seem to be anecdotal or at the very least, lacking sufficient levels of scientific research.

While foam rolling can be beneficial for many runners, some people may not see the same benefits. Each person’s body is different, and what works for one runner may not work for another.

If it is all pain, no gain. Stop and focus on other forms of recovery.

Foam rolling back.

#3: It Is Not A Substitute For Strengthening

While foam rolling does have its benefits, it should not be a substitute for other forms of injury prevention and performance.

Whilst there is some debate regarding the lack of evidence-based studies regarding the benefits of foam rolling, there are swathes of evidence to show that a progressive strength training program will provide your body with the best chance of avoiding injury.

If you had to choose one, pick strength training.

However, have your cake and eat it too! Runners should incorporate both foam rolling and strength training into their training routine for optimal results.

#4: It Can Be Time-Consuming

Foam rolling can be a time-consuming process, which may not be feasible for all runners.

Once you have gone for a run and fitted in that strength session we just spoke about, you may find it difficult to fit foam rolling into your schedule.

#5: Do Not Foam Roll Directly Over An Injured Area

Runners should be careful not to use foam rollers excessively or with too much pressure on an injured area.

Doing this could result in more inflammation and soreness in the area, further exacerbating your injury.

Foam rolling quads.

Foam Rolling: Top Tips

On balance, foam rolling is a useful tool for runners to utilize.

Here are a few tips to consider before you next use the foam roller:

  • Start Light And Slow: If you are new to foam rolling or your body is particularly sore, start slowly and gently. Apply light pressure to the foam roller and gradually increase the intensity as your muscles become more accustomed to the practice. This will give them the best chance to relax.
  • Breathe Deeply And Focus On The Muscles Being Worked On: As a technique, deep breathing can help to relax the muscles and make foam rolling more effective. Take slow, deep breaths as you roll over each area, and focus on releasing tension from your body.
  • Don’t Stay On One Area For Too Long: Although the pain may be situated in a specific area, you will likely find more relief from working the connecting muscles. Staying in an aggravated area for too long can increase aggravation and soreness.

Foam roller exercises

It is important to know how to keep good form when foam rolling. Applying significant amounts of force in haphazard ways can lead to injury.

Here are a couple of specific exercises you may find helpful for your next foam rolling session:

Foam Roller Exercise for Quads

Here’s how to foam roll the quads:

  1. Start by placing the foam roller on the floor and lying face down with the foam roller under your thighs, just above the knees.
  2. Use your forearms to support your upper body and slowly roll forward until the foam roller reaches the top of your thighs.
  3. Use your arms to push yourself forward and backward along the length of your quads, stopping and holding at any tight or sore spots.
  4. Slowly roll back and forth for 30-60 seconds, focusing on any areas that feel particularly tight or tender.
  5. To increase the intensity, you can try lifting one leg off the foam roller and rolling one quad at a time.
  6. Be sure to take slow, deep breaths as you roll and avoid holding your breath or tensing up.
  7. Repeat on the other leg, and continue rolling each quad for 1-2 minutes on each side.

Foam Roller Exercise for Hip Flexors

Foam rolling the hip flexors can be especially beneficial for runners who often experience tightness in the hip flexors due to the repetitive motion of running.

Follow similar instructions to foam rolling your quads, with the emphasis on the top of the quadriceps, near the hip crease.

Foam Roller Exercise for Calves

Here’s how to foam roll the calves:

  1. Start by sitting on the floor with the foam roller under your calves, just above your ankles.
  2. Place your hands on the floor behind you, and lift your hips off the ground to put your body weight onto the foam roller.
  3. Slowly roll forward and backward along the length of your calves, stopping and holding at any tight or sore spots.
  4. Slowly roll back and forth for 30-60 seconds, focusing on any areas that feel particularly tight or tender.
  5. To increase the intensity, you can try stacking one leg on top of the other to focus on one calf at a time.
  6. Be sure to take slow, deep breaths as you roll and avoid holding your breath or tensing up.
  7. Repeat on the other leg, and continue rolling each calf for 1-2 minutes.

Foam rolling is a great, low-cost tool at every runner’s disposal. Use it wisely alongside other forms of injury prevention and performance, and you will get a heap of benefits.

If you want an in-depth look at how to foam roll different areas of the body, check out: The 6 Best Foam Roller Exercises For Legs.

Foam rolling calves.
Photo of author
Ben is a qualified Personal Trainer and Sports Massage Therapist with a particular interest in running performance and injury. He has spent the last 9 years working with runners at his clinic in Brighton. Ben is a keen runner and avid cyclist. Evenly splitting his time between trail running, road biking, and MTB.

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