Ask a Trainer: How Can I Best Use a Foam Roller?

"I have a foam roller and I know I should use it, but I'm never quite sure what to do. What's a good foam rolling routine?”

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The foam roller is the body’s equivalent to regularly lubing your bike chain and pumping air in your tires. Imagine one day you wanted to ride your bike and you noticed the tires were a little flat, and the chain was a little rusty. And also imagine if you treated your bike’s maintenance issues similar to how many of us treat our body’s maintenance issues, i.e. cranky knees, tight IT band, achy calves. You either A) try and “ride” unsuccessfully, causing more damage to your tires or B) you decide to wait a few days and hope that the next time you want to ride, your bike’s flat tire and rusty chain will have fixed themselves.

Yes, this seems silly, but it’s too often how we treat our own bodies. We train anyway, hoping the problem will go away. Or we rest, hoping the problem will go away. And in between, we convince ourselves we have “no time” to take care of our own bodies. Fortunately, you can accomplish a lot of self-care with 10- to 15-minute foam rolling sessions. Enter the weekly full-body scan.

Pick two body parts to tackle per night for 15 minutes. Here are a few recommendations.

  • Calves & Quads
  • Hamstrings & Glutes
  • Lats & Pecs & T-Spine
  • Feet & Shins

Spend 3 to 4 minutes per body part for 12 to 16 minutes of total work, i.e. 4 minutes per calf and 4 minutes per quad. Roll “East-West” in addition to “North-South.” Hover over tight spots, breathe through it, relax, and get them to release. If your foam roller is too soft, use something harder with less diameter. I love using my travel coffee mug for example.

The advantages of the weekly body scan are numerous. One, overuse injuries don’t come out of “nowhere.” You’re just not paying attention. Regular mobility sessions give you a baseline of your tissue health and more quickly catch potential injuries in the early stages. Two, you recover more quickly between hard sessions by helping to get blood flow to tendons and ligaments and helping the body’s lymphatic system do its thing. Third, a body that’s “well oiled” moves better and bodies that move better also swim, bike, and run more efficiently and powerfully.

Finally, I know you don’t have more time in the day. None of us do, so it’s important you roll your feet while typing emails. Massage your hamstrings while taking a phone call. Smash your quads while reading the news. Netflix episodes represent the perfect opportunity for a mobility session. You get the picture.

For more ideas and inspiration on what specific foam rolling modalities to try, download my The Run Experience app or checkout The Run Experience on Youtube.

San Francisco-based Nate Helming co-founded The Run Experience with the goal of reaching a broader audience of runners and outdoor enthusiasts who want to be able to run and enjoy the outdoors and avoid injury. He has helped athletes finish their first races, conquer new distances, overcome pre-existing injuries, set new PRs, reach the podium, and qualify for national and world level events. 

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