A Guide To Foam Rolling For Runners, Straight From The Pros

Upgrade your recovery game.

A comprehensive guide to foam rolling for runners.
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Regardless of how often or how far you run, you know that stretching should be a key part of your workout routine. When you’re logging miles, your quads, hamstring, calves, glutes, core — the list goes on — tend to get tight, which is why taking the time to lengthen your muscles is so important. But incorporating some foam rolling into your recovery sessions can also help.

Foam rolling entails using a cylinder-shaped roller over your muscles to alleviate tension and tightness, says Sandra Gail Frayna, PT, a physical therapist and founder of Hudson Premier Physical Therapy & Sports. It’s something anyone can do, but foam rolling is especially helpful for running enthusiasts, whether you’re a casual jogger or training for a marathon.

“When you begin to feel any type of tightness or soreness in your muscles it can be beneficial to spend a few minutes a day using a foam roller to break up knots or tension in the area,” Frayna tells Bustle. “Foam rolling can be a great cool down exercise for runners, as it can help recovery and winding down after a run.”

It’s also something you can do before you lace up to get your body primed for movement. In this case, foam roll your hamstrings, glutes, calves — or anywhere else that feels tight — as a warmup. Using your body weight to press into the roller will give your soft tissue a nice massage, says Dr. Rubina Tahir, DC, a doctor of chiropractic who treats runners. “This helps to elongate muscles, increase blood flow, and warm up your muscles to be ready for running,” she tells Bustle. Read on for a comprehensive guide on foam rolling for runners.

The Benefits Of Foam Rolling

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Foam rolling is a form of myofascial release — aka self-massage — that is thought to help runners heal from soreness and tightness, says Rachel MacPherson, CSCS, CPT, a certified personal trainer and performance specialist. As Frayna explains, the rolling and pressure of the tool breaks up the knots in your muscles while promoting blood flow to help you recover faster.

While it feels good to massage your muscles, foam rolling also works to calm your nervous system so that your body can return to a restful state for recovery, especially when paired with deep breathing, says MacPherson. It’s thought that the rolling reduces stress hormones and trains your nervous system to relax, she explains, which in turn stops tension from occurring in certain areas of the body.

Another perk? “It can also help improve range of motion to boost mobility for the short-term when done before a workout by training the muscles to relax,” MacPherson tells Bustle. Improving your range of motion — and taking time to recover — is also what helps prevent overuse injuries, which is super important to ensure comfy jogging.

When To Foam Roll

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Go ahead and foam roll before a run, after a run, and on recovery days. “You can foam roll before your training session instead of static stretching,” MacPherson says, as a way to prep your muscles and wake them up.

It’ll also feel great to roll after your run to coax your body back into a restful state, especially if you chugged for miles. “For someone who is particularly active, it would be best to use a foam roller once a day after a workout,” Frayna says. “Otherwise it can be done just two to three times a week or when you are beginning to feel sore.”

How To Foam Roll

1. Hamstrings

To hit this area, MacPherson recommends sitting with your hamstrings perpendicular to a foam roller, with one or both legs placed over the roller. “Use your arms to create the rolling movement by pushing your leg over the roller, allowing it to roll up and down the hamstrings,” she explains. “Breathe deeply in and out and pay particular attention to any areas that feel tight or tense.” It shouldn’t hurt, but it might feel slightly uncomfortable. Roll for about 60 to 90 seconds on each leg.

2. Glutes & Piriformis

To roll your buns, sit on the foam roller with your legs in a figure-four position — one foot flat on the floor and the other bent with your ankle resting on your opposite thigh or knee. “Keep the foam roller perpendicular to the glutes and piriformis and use the foot on the floor to create a rolling movement back and forth over the roller,” MacPherson says. “Apply more pressure by leaning toward the side with the elevated leg.” Keep breathing as you roll to help release tension.

3. Quads

An easy way to do a quick foam roll for your thighs is by getting into a plank position, placing the foam roller just above your knees, and swaying back and forth in that position, Frayna says. “Try to do this for one to two minutes to get the best benefits,” she notes. You could also opt to do one leg at a time.

4. Plantar Fascia

The plantar fascia is a band of tissue that connects your heel to the base of your toes, Tahir says, and it can often accumulate tension when you run. To roll this area, stand with the arch of one foot on the roller. Use your weight to apply pressure as you roll your foot forward and backward. Cover the entire bottom of your foot. Roll for one minute then switch feet.

5. Calves

It’s also key to focus on your calves, which do a lot of work as you run. To hit this area, sit back on the floor, place the foam roller under your calf, and cross your leg so the bottom calf is pushed into the roller. Roll back and forth covering the entire area.

6. Latissimus Dorsi & Triceps

Yup, your arms and back need some love, too. To foam roll your back and triceps, lie with the foam roller perpendicular to your body and your arm extended over the roller. “Slide the roller down until it is under on your side, resting on your lat muscle, then use your legs to create the rolling movement over the area from under the arm to the shoulder blade down along your side,” MacPherson says. Breathe deeply and keep going for 60 to 90 seconds per side.

7. Pecs

If your chest feels tight after a run, grab the roller once again. Lie on your stomach with it under your armpit area and use your legs and opposite arm to roll over the foam roller — or lie still and let your body weight do the work.

Studies referenced:

Hendricks, S. (2020). Effects of foam rolling on performance and recovery: A systematic review of the literature to guide practitioners on the use of foam rolling. J Bodyw Mov Ther. doi: 10.1016/j.jbmt.2019.10.019.

Kerautret, Y. (2021). Foam Rolling Elicits Neuronal Relaxation Patterns Distinct from Manual Massage: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Brain Sci. doi: 10.3390/brainsci11060818.

Konrad, A. (2021). Foam Rolling Training Effects on Range of Motion: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Medicine (Auckland, N.z.), 52(10), 2523-2535.

P. Pearcey, G. E. (2015). Foam Rolling for Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness and Recovery of Dynamic Performance Measures. Journal of Athletic Training, 50(1), 5-13.

Wiewelhove, T. (2019). A Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Foam Rolling on Performance and Recovery. Front Physiol. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2019.00376.


Sandra Gail Frayna, PT, physical therapist, founder of Hudson Premier Physical Therapy & Sports

Dr. Rubina Tahir, DC, doctor of chiropractic

Rachel MacPherson, CSCS, CPT, certified personal trainer, performance specialist