The New Rules of Foam Rolling

Molly Hurford
by Molly Hurford
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The New Rules of Foam Rolling

Foam rolling is a standard recovery practice for runners, but more often than not, we aren’t making the most of our time on the mat. While we might know that rolling is good for us, we often go about it in a slapdash faster-and-harder-is-better style that leaves us sorer than we were when we began. Now that science has caught up with what runners have been doing for years, we know that there are better ways to roll for faster recovery, less soreness and increased mobility in your joints.

Before you get started, here’s a short list of equipment that you’ll need:

  • Any standard foam roller
  • Two lacrosse balls and a sock

So what are the new rules of foam rolling? We’ve got you covered.


1. DO foam roll anytime.

You can roll before you run, after you run or while you watch TV at night. Really, anytime is a good time to mobilize. Rolling before a run may help increase mobility during your workout, so if you have any lingering soreness as you get ready to head out the door, take a couple of minutes to prep by rolling. And after your run, roll out again; it’s been shown to help decrease post-run soreness.


2. DON’T roll both legs at once.

Rolling both legs at once is not only less effective, but it also completely misses most of the muscles that you’re trying to roll out. You also can’t control the pressure that you’re putting on the muscles, leaving some untouched while others are hammered. You’re not a mermaid; don’t foam roll like one.


3. DO roll one leg at a time.

Make each move count by rolling on one leg at a time. This allows you to get as deep or go as light with pressure as you want. Use three points of contact with the ground (Think: arms and other leg) to vary the pressure, pushing down enough to feel and then release tension, but not feeling pain.


4. DO roll horizontally as well as vertically.

As you slowly move the roller up and down on your legs, pause on each major muscle group, making an effort to roll horizontally across the roller and working into muscles in the sides of your legs as well as the front and back. You’ll find that the right side of your quad needs just as much attention as the front, and rolling horizontally is the only way to really work into all of the parts of the muscle.


5. DON’T go from top to bottom in 1 move.

People often make the mistake of rolling up and down a full muscle in one shot for a few fast reps. We often do this because it’s uncomfortable to stop and focus on a small part of the muscle for more than nanoseconds at a time, but you’re not getting any real mobility or recovery doing this. When you roll fast, you’re just pummeling the muscle and not allowing the tension to build and release. It’s like a jackhammer versus a skilled massage.


6. DO go slowly.

Move up your leg one inch at a time, pausing to do that horizontal rolling. For example, rolling your quad should take six or seven slow moves up or down. Doing this lets you focus on specific parts of the muscle, and allows tension to build — but don’t let it build to the point of intense pain. Rolling over the muscles slowly lets you relax into the tension, releasing it. Foam rolling isn’t just about pummeling the muscles. It’s about relaxing the nervous system, and you can’t do that without slowing way down.


7. DON’T roll so hard you’re sweating in pain.

As we’ve said, foam rolling is about relaxing the nervous system, not bombarding it with painful signals. If you feel yourself starting to clench, sweat or breathe rapidly because the pain in your muscles is becoming unbearable — or the muscles feel like they’re cramping rather than being tensioned — pull back. Again, this is why we want three anchors on the ground, so you can add or subtract pressure without falling off the roller.


8. DO pause to let tension release.

If you feel pain — not too much, remember — pause and breathe deeply. Let yourself sink into the roller or lacrosse ball just a little bit more, and try to let your muscle relax freely. If you can’t, just hold for a few seconds and move on. It’s not always easy to get this on your first try, but keep working toward it. Do this frequently enough, and you will start feeling muscles release (and it’s the best feeling ever).


9. DO roll out your back.

Just because you don’t feel tension in your back post-run doesn’t mean it isn’t there, especially if you spend the rest of the day working in an office sitting at a desk. Lie with the foam roller underneath you, around where a heart rate monitor strap would go, and slowly turn from side to side, holding your lower spine tensioned and straight, not bending over the roller. You can hold your hands behind your head to give your neck a break, or give yourself a hug as you slowly work your way up, inch by inch, rolling from side to side.


10. DO mix it up.

If you don’t have a foam roller, or you’re not planning to bring one on a vacation or to a race weekend, consider this substitute: Put your two lacrosse balls in a sock, twist it and fold it back on itself. This peanut-shaped contraption can help you roll out your hamstrings, quads and back, and get into tighter spots like your glutes, calves and feet — just pop the balls out, and use one to get deep into a muscle. Use the peanut-style roller to ease tension in your back, starting around where your heart rate monitor would go. Work your way slowly up your back toward your neck, gently bending right and left over the peanut to stretch and release tension.


11. DO give your feet some love.

A foam roller might be too big for your feet, but a lacrosse ball is just right. Use the ball to go from side to side, and front to back on your foot, pausing to work out any place where there are kinks. This is a good time to remember the pressure-not-pain rule: If you go too hard, you might end up with a charley horse, and every runner knows that a cramp like that is the worst kind of pain. Just let your muscles ease into the stretch, and think of it as a deep-tissue foot massage. Ahh.

About the Author

Molly Hurford
Molly Hurford

Molly is an outdoor adventurer and professional nomad obsessed with all things running, nutrition, cycling and movement-related. When not outside, she’s writing and podcasting about being outside, training and health. You can follow along with her adventures on Instagram at @mollyjhurford.


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