From the backstage of dance troupes, to weight-lifting rooms to the toolkit of the everyday runner, foam rollers have a demonstrated history of usefulness. But with so many choices on the market, how are runners supposed to choose a roller? And how are runners supposed to best use the self-massage tool?
Foam rolling is a beneficial practice worth adding to your warm-up and recovery phases. Here’s what you need to know to get rolling.
How foam rolling works1 of 5
According to fitness expert and consultant Dr. John Rusin, foam rolling works by targeting tight muscles. The technique allows more blood flow, stimulates recovery and works out soreness.
"Foam rollers, or any self-myofascial technique for that matter, work to alleviate tone and tightness in muscles," he says. "This is not to be confused with 'breaking up scar tissue' because that phenomenon is a physical impossibility. Rather, a foam roller can cause a neural alleviation of tightness by tapping into the central nervous system—including the brain, nerves and spinal cord."
Choose your roller2 of 5
There is a range of foam rollers on the market, so selecting one for your needs can be overwhelming. Rusin says it's all about size.
"The biggest thing when choosing the proper tool for soft tissue work is matching the size and shape of the roller or ball with the size of the tissue that you are targeting with these techniques," he said. "For example, a larger muscle group like the quadriceps are best matched with bigger foam rollers which cover a greater surface area, while a smaller muscle group, like the calves, may be better served with a lacrosse ball due to the smaller size of the muscles."
These days, there are rollers that aren't even made of foam, and even rollers that vibrate, like the VYPER from Hyperice.
"The VYPER is unique because it utilizes the combined power of high frequency vibration and fitness roller pressure to help loosen tired, sore muscles," says Robbie Davis, athletic trainer, strength and conditioning specialist and advisor to Hyperice.
How to do it3 of 5
Davis says that runners should try to foam roll for 2-3 minutes before running.
"Running is a full body workout, which can cause stiffness in a number of regions of the body. Typically, the hamstrings, hips, calves and plantar fascia receive a lot of strain from running," he said.
What to do: Target tight areas for 2-3 minutes before running. Lean into the roller for each stretch and try to control the pressure.
What it helps: Optimize muscles and reduce muscle fatigue
Postworkout — What to do: Target the larger muscle groups, such as the quadriceps and the lower legs, and spend more time if needed.
What it helps: Stimulates blood flow and recovery
What to avoid4 of 5
Foam rolling shouldn't cause excruciating pain, Rusin says, but it may be uncomfortable.
"It shouldn't be emergency room level pain, but it also needs to be targeting tissues that are chronically taught as well," he says. "I define the hurt factor as no more than a 6/10 on the subjective pain scale. Over or under that metric is probably not giving you the result you are looking for.
"People love to overdo foam rolling, and roll until it literally hurts too much to continue. Pain does not automatically mean that the technique is working. Success with soft-tissue techniques should be defined by improved range of motion of movements and functional carryover into activity."