Updated: August 20th, 2021
It may sound strange, but truth is: a foam roller could save your runs

Of course you can opt for a ‘super massage gun’ or splash out on a deep tissue sports massage each week (which is great if you have a training plan and a race date in mind) but for the rest of you leisurely running for health, not for PB goals, then it’s a massage every week for the ret of you life. That can get pricey!

Foam roller – Myofascial release

Foam rollers have been at the centre of self-massage myofascial release for some time, from different densities to sizes and designs for the bargain price of $10 and upwards (for the most basic of models, and really what more do you need?)

I mean the chances are you have heard about foam rolling are pretty high, considering their reputation amongst the fitness community, but did you know limiting its use to a rehabilitation tool is not getting the most out of your foamy friend? Yes, paramount for aiding sore muscles and improving flexibility post-workout, however foam rollers could be the most valuable part of your warm-up and cool down that you’re missing out on (Seconded by Michael Clark Ph.D of National academy of sports medicine).

Foam rolling legs

The idea of self massage with a foam roller gives your all the benefits of a sports massage without the appointment, cost, being slathered in oil and the area you need focusing on being missed or worse ‘ran out of time’ on. It puts the power back in your hands. Yes you need the time-slot to dedicate a foam rolling session, but realistically you’re looking at a fraction compared to a 60 minute massage slot. Other benefits of your little foamy friend are:

  • Enhanced blood flow (especially aiding the return from lower extreme sites that also fight gravitational pull)
  • Considerable increase in oxygen to sore muscles (due to the aid in blow flow)
  • Feeling of mental relaxation
  • Cost and time effective
  • Breaks down muscle tension “knots” and lesions
  • Aids the break down of scar tissue that limit mobility
  • Reduction in stress-hormone and signs of inflammation
  • Able to treat multiple areas
  • Increase flexibility and joint range of movement
  • Better immune function – improving recovery post-run
  • Improved posture
  • Investment and understanding of your own body and how it responds to running.

Because of the increasing circulation benefits, this makes foam rolling perfect as a warm up activity, it stimulates an increase in oxygen to the muscles in your legs, gets them warm and flexible ready to stretch and head on your route. After your run it helps elongate the muscles, bring attention to the areas of inflammation (and aid the recovery process) whilst also breaks down muscle tension built up on your run, preventing those pesky looming running injuries; all hail the foam roller!

Foam rolling woman

However if you are short on time pre and post run, you can always opt for 10 minutes on the evening dedicated to your foam roller buddy, simply roll slowly on a specific muscle until you find a tender spot. Pause and roll slowly over the tender spot until you feel a melting release (Did I mention this will probably hurt?)

For running, your main muscles to target with your foam roller would be: (from toe to head)

  • Gastrocnemius/Soleus
  • Peroneals
  • Tibialis anterior
  • Hamstrings
  • Quadriceps
  • Sartorius
  • Lumbar region
  • (illiopsoas, erector spinae)

  • Thoracic region
  • (Lats, erector spinae)

* Although take caution when rolling your back, avoid rolling over your spine, it can be painful and theres really no need – I usually line the edge of my foam roller with my spine so I have a focused erector spinae roll out.

Tennis ball – Trigger point therapy

What about for the more specific muscles?Your glutes are arguably the most important muscle complex when it comes to running, if they are too ‘tight’; its usually bad news for your hamstrings and lower back.

This is where your tennis ball would come into play – a travel sized foam roller if you will. The way we will get to more specific areas is through trigger point therapy. Don’t get me wrong, you can use a hockey ball, cricket ball, or a spiked massage ball, However, I have found theres zero give in them, and more painful than what is actually necessary; you’re much less likely to bruise with a tennis ball, plus they’re lighter to carry around (I run with one in my bag in case my glues need a release).

Tennis ball

Trigger point therapy is a rehabilitation modality designed to correct muscular imbalances, relieve pain, and increase joint mobility (very much like your foam roller). Ideally your muscle is it put into a stretch, then pressure is applied to a particular sore area or “knot”. I used “knot” because your muscles are not all tied up in knots and confused. Running through your muscles are muscle fibres; they run in a straight line from tendon to tendon, length ways.

The analogy I use is remember when earphones had cables? (Showing my age here) You’d wrap them nice no put into your pocket, only to find them in knots when you pull them back out? That is how your muscle fibres are; in disarray. Applying a stretch and pressure wont sort out your headphones but it works wonders for your muscle fibres!

Reasons muscle ‘knots’ occur

The cause on the ear-phone like kerfuffle of your muscle fibres are usually akin to:

  • Ageing
  • Picking up a child, and sitting them onto the same side hip each time
  • Poor posture
  • Injury through impact
  • Lack of exercise
  • Prolonged muscle overuse, with associated micro trauma
  • Chronic stress conditions (anxiety, depression, trauma)
  • Sleep position and any disturbances
  • Joint problems (including hyper mobility)

How to use a foam roller and tennis ball for recovery

Personally, I use trigger point therapy and foam rolling techniques hand in hand; you can enhance a foam roller treatment with a tennis ball up your back for deeper, focused attention to your erector spinae muscles. You can put the glues onto a stretch and hold the painful spot until it melts away. But also you can use it for more delicate and focused areas such as your neck and feet. Rolling a tennis ball under your feet is said to increase hamstring flexibility as well as rid the tension built up over prolonged time.

Tennis ball massage

My favourite and most commonly administered to patents (as well as my own treatment) for a limited range of movement in your neck (when looking side to side) – find the superior angle/medial boarder of your scapular and pop the tennis ball there and lean against a wall. It will be painful at first (if it is, apply a heat pack first) but it is the quickest, and most effective way to rid tension in the neck at home; and it takes less than 10 minutes! You can also find so many common ‘tender spots’ that will release myofascial tension.

Trigger points

Of course there are other interventions that also use trigger point therapy, such as as manual therapy, dry-needling, acupuncture (using a meridian system rather than the trigger point therapy maps we use in western medicine). These options often reported less painful and obviously not self administered, you would need to see your doctor or a clinician for this type of treatment.

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