Workout Wednesday: Foam Rolling

During the training for my first marathon, I really dedicated to doing all the right things to finish the race, hit my goal and stay injury-free. I managed to do all three. Not an easy feat if you’ve ever put in the time and effort to train for a long endurance race.

I attribute most of that success to the ability to train consistently over time. And I attribute that success to really dedicating to the little strength exercises pre and post run and to almost daily foam rolling sessions. 


What is Foam Rolling?

Foam rolling is just a fancy term for self-massage. And for marketing sounds better than self-myofascial release. Fascia is the connective tissue that surrounds the muscles. Fascia protects the muscles and over time, when working out, will thicken and shorten to prevent you from continually breaking down the muscle. This is an issue when the fascia gets so tight it starts restricting and changing how you move. That leads to injuries.

Foam rolling can assist in breaking up tight and painful muscle knots. The goal of is to stretch and loosen the fascia so that it and other structures can move more freely. 


Benefits of Foam Rolling

  • Corrects muscle imbalances
  • Improves joint range of motion
  • Relieves muscle soreness and joint stress
  • Increases flexibility
  • Improves muscle efficiency
  • Maintains normal functional muscular length (muscles tighten up when they shorten)


Why Does It Hurt Like Hell?

It hurts  because you have sore muscles and breaking up those “knots” is not a walk in the park.  Imagine you are tenderizing your own muscles. The more painful it is, the more it’s an indication that the muscles need the rolling. It does get better. The more rolling you do, the less it will hurt.

Now, it shouldn’t hurt so much that you tighten up while doing it (sort of defeating the point) or are crying in pain. If the pain is at that level you should probably see a doctor. You’ve moved from muscle discomfort to muscle injury.

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How to Foam Roll

To foam roll properly, apply moderate pressure to a specific muscle or muscle group using the roller and your body weight. You should roll slowly, no more than one inch per second. When you find areas that are tight or painful, pause for several seconds and relax as much as possible. You should slowly start to feel the muscle releasing, and after 10-20 seconds the discomfort or pain should lessen. 

Some common mistakes to avoid if you are new to foam rolling:

  1. Don’t just focus on the injured area. Often the part of the body that is hurting is being caused by tightness in another area. Look for the areas that connect to the painful area and be sure to roll those, as well.
  2. Don’t go too quickly, even if it hurts. Fascia is thick and fibrous, a quick pass is not going to help. 
  3. But don’t dwell on it either. No more than 30 seconds on one spot is a good rule.
  4. Foam rolling hurts, but it’s also a workout in itself. Don’t let your form slip.


The science is still a bit squishy, but if you find yourself hampered by soreness or nagging injuries while training for that next race, you might consider incorporating foam rolling into your pre and post-workout routine. It has proven to be an effective way to decrease soreness, increase flexibility and range of motion for me especially in the midst of a big training block. I plan to use it daily as I begin increase my weekly mileage while training for Chicago this fall.