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Foam rolling for runners: improve mobility and performance

A woman foam rolling
Foam rolling for runners helps you relieve the strain of running on your soft tissues (Image credit: miljko)

Running is one of the best forms of cardiovascular exercise there is, but its amazing benefits for your heart and lungs can be somewhat offset by the tweaks, tightness and injuries that can be sustained by the repetitive movements of this high impact sport. The more time you spend in your trail running shoes, the more you’re likely to have noticed stiffness and pain in your muscles and joints. Foam rolling for runners helps you relieve the strain of running on your soft tissues, and restores elasticity and circulation to improve your performance.

A foam roller is a lightweight cylinder made of foam that can be used to perform a type of self-massage that helps alleviate tightness in the fascia – or connective tissue –  between your skin and your muscles. This connective tissue can become restricted and cause pain when you run a lot, particularly in your hips and legs, and this can inhibit your range of motion in important joints like your knees, ankles and hips. If this isn’t tended to, it can result in imbalance and injury.

A man foam rolling his calves

Foam rolling may be even more effective than stretching for runners (Image credit: FreshSplash)

Foam rolling involves lying on top of your roller which will be placed to target a certain area – say, your hamstrings – and moving your body so that the roller moves up and down your hamstrings to massage out any tension lurking beneath the surface.

Foam rolling is believed to stimulate blood flow which decreases inflammation and speeds up recovery, reducing pain and improving elasticity of your muscles and therefore overall mobility.

Is foam rolling good for runners? 

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The quad dominant nature of running often leads to very tight IT bands, a strip of connective tissue that runs along your outer thigh from hip to knee (Image credit: Getty)

As we outlined in our article on pilates for runners, foam rolling may be even more effective than stretching for runners. Running involves linear movement (essentially, you only move forward) and short, repetitive movements of your knees and hips which strengthens a very specific set of muscles, primarily your quads and hip flexors, and tends to bypass muscles like your glutes and hamstrings. 

The quad-dominant nature of running often leads to very tight IT bands, a strip of connective tissue that runs along your outer thigh from hip to knee. Connective tissue is generally less mobile than muscle tissue to begin with, and when the quad muscles it connects to are overdeveloped, the IT band essentially becomes more restricted, which can lead to knee and hip pain. 

Close up of athlete foam rolling their glutes

Best of all, foam rolling only takes a few minutes, so if you’re training for a big race, it doesn’t have to add hours to your weekly routine (Image credit: microgen)

Another muscle group that works hard in running are your hip flexor muscles, those muscles at the front of your hip that contract every time you bring your leg up and are always tight if you’re a runner. When tight, these can pull your pelvis  slightly forward which restricts your hamstring mobility too.

Though stretching is definitely an important part of a runner’s routine as we outline in our article yoga stretches for runners, foam rolling is a really effective way to help unwind the patterns of tension in your connective tissue and keep your muscles moving optimally and your bones in good alignment. This will not only help with recovery but ensure you can run further and without injury. Best of all, foam rolling only takes a few minutes, so if you’re training for a big race, it doesn’t have to add hours to your weekly routine. 

How often should runners foam roll? 

A person holding a foam roller

Though 2-3 times a week is usually recommended, the best practice is to make sure you foam roll on the days that you run (Image credit: miniseries)

Though 2-3 times a week is usually recommended, the best practice is to make sure you foam roll on the days that you run. That way, you don’t allow too much stiffness to build up between runs. Certainly too much of anything can be a bad thing, but if you feel you’re getting a lot out of foam rolling, and only doing a few minutes each time, you can probably do it every day. 

Is it okay to foam roll before running? 

You can definitely foam roll before running to loosen things up. This might make your running more efficient and could play a role in injury prevention. You can also use foam rolling as a means of recovery, either immediately after your run or later the same day. 

Looking for “trigger points”

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Foam rolling is very effective for runners and doesn't take long, but it’s also not always the most pleasant sensation (Image credit: Thomas Barwick)

Foam rolling is very effective for runners and doesn't take long, but it’s also not always the most pleasant sensation. You’re looking for those sweet spots, known as “trigger points,” so if there’s a lot of sensation, don’t shy away from it – you’re in the right place! Just remember to breathe. 

1. Quads and hip flexors 

A woman foam rolling her quads

Start with your most running dominant muscles – quads and hip flexors (Image credit: jacoblund)

Start with your most running dominant muscles – quads and hip flexors. Lie on your front with the roller under your right thigh, prop yourself up on your elbows then slowly roll up and down, so the roller massages you from just above the knee cap all the way up almost to your frontal hip bone. Spend a couple of minutes then move on to your IT band. 

2. IT band and outer hip 

A woman foam rolling her IT band

Your IT band is just to the outside of your quads (Image credit: adamkaz)

Your IT band is just to the outside of your quads, so after you’ve done the quads, roll a little over onto your right side, prop yourself up on your right elbow and start to roll up and down from hip to knee. After about 90 seconds, turn a little more to your right side and target your outer glutes for a minute or two. When you’re finished, move the roller to your left thigh, begin with your quads and work through the whole series again. 

3. Hamstrings, glutes and calves

A woman foam rolling her hamstrings

Sit on the roller then bend your left knee, placing your foot on the ground and lean back into your hands (Image credit: microgen)

Sit on the roller then bend your left knee, placing your foot on the ground and lean back into your hands. Slowly move so that the roller runs up and down your right hamstrings – there are three muscles so make sure to lean a little left and right to target all three. Three or four good rolls is usually enough. Then lean back into your elbows and get your right glutes too. Finally, work down to a few rolls on your calf muscles. After a couple of minutes, repeat on your left side. 

Julia Clarke

Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Adventure.com. She is an author, mountain enthusiast and yoga teacher who loves heading uphill on foot, ski, bike and belay. She recently returned to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland after 20 years living in the USA, 11 of which were spent in the rocky mountains of Vail, Colorado where she owned a boutique yoga studio and explored the west's famous peaks and rivers. She is a champion for enjoying the outdoors sustainably as well as maintaining balance through rest and meditation, which she explores in her book Restorative Yoga for Beginners, a beginner's path to healing with deep relaxation. She enjoys writing about the outdoors, yoga, wellness and travel. In her previous lives, she has also been a radio presenter, music promoter, university teacher and winemaker.