Foam Rolling for A**holes

[foam roll photo]

Sorry, “for Dummies” was taken.

Marathon training used to mean to me what it means to most people.  Running through pain, battling injury as the miles pile up, taking extra days off as the body deteriorates, eventually skipping out on the longest, most important runs in the program.  For my first three marathons, I didn’t run more than 18 miles in any of the training, essentially taking the final month off before each race and waking up race day morning wondering if I’d finish.

Since I started doing foam rolling between workouts almost two years ago, it’s been one of those how-did-I-ever-live-before-this things.  Even when I’ve only found time for one half-hour session per week, it has made such a tremendous difference in my ability to train for a marathon without getting injured.  It’s like night and day.  When I’m doing it consistently, I’m virtually injury-free.  In the three training programs I’ve done since incorporating the foam roll, I’ve been able to focus on logging in quality workouts, not on taking days off to heal.  It’s no coincidence that when I got injured earlier this year, I wasn’t doing any foam rolling at all.

The purpose of foam rolling is to soften muscle tissue, to “iron out the kinks” and keep it elastic and pliable.  Think deep massage.  I don’t know what kind physiological basis the concept has; I just know that it works.  How?  Because it hurt like hell to do it when I started, and after a few weeks it stopped hurting.  The explanation, of course, is that I had trained for years without giving any care to my muscle tissue, so it took a while to soften it up and get those knots out.

[core performance endurance cover]Here’s a sampling of the foam roll (and tennis ball) exercises I do about once per week while watching television.  Most of these exercises target knee and shin pain.  I learned them from Core Performance Endurance, which includes routines for all different types of pain.  Knee and shin just happen to be my pains of choice.

By the way, I use a GoFit foam roll. I got it at Target for around 20 bucks.  But it’s just compressed foam, so you might be able to find or make one for cheaper.  Some running stores carry them as well.

Foam Roll Exercises

For foam roll exercises, roll back and forth for 30 seconds to a minute.  For tennis ball exercises, find pressure points and keep as much weight as possible on the ball for one minute.

If you’ve never done foam rolling before, you may find it painful at first.  You should ease into it, doing only as much as is reasonably comfortable.  It should become much less painful after a few sessions.

Quads – Cross your legs so that most of the weight is on one leg.  After rolling on one leg, switch to the other.  If this is too painful at first, roll on both legs simultaneously.

[quad roll]

IT band – Lie on your side and place the tennis ball in a sensitive spot on the outside of your leg near your hip joint.  After the desired time, move the ball farther down your leg.  Switch legs and repeat.

[IT band roll]

Hamstrings – Cross your legs so that most of the weight is on one leg.  After rolling on one leg, switch to the other.

[hamstring roll]

Calves – Cross your legs so that most of the weight is on one leg.  After rolling on one leg, switch to the other.

[calf roll]

Glutes – Find a sensitive spot and put as much weight as possible on the ball.  After the desired time, move to a new sensitive spot.  Switch to the other side and repeat.

[glute roll]

Arch – Place the ball under your foot and, with as much weight as possible, move the ball back and forth 50 times.  Repeat on other foot.

[arch roll]

Front of Shins – Keep as much weight as possible on the roll, not on your hands, while you roll back and forth.

[front shin roll]

Side of shins – Roll by alternately bringing your knees to your chest and extending your legs.  Repeat on other side.

[side shin roll]

TFL – Extend one leg out to side for support.  On the other leg, target the very top of your quadriceps near your hip, just outside the center of your leg.  Don’t skip this one; improper firing of the TFL muscle can cause IT band sydrome and knee pain!

[tfl roll]

Knee – Lie on the floor and place the ball just above your knee on the inside of your leg.  Roll it around to find a sensitive spot and hold.

[knee roll]

Adductor – Lie mostly flat and place the roll under your thigh.  To roll back and forth, you may need to lift yourself up with your arms a bit.

[adductor roll]

Happy rolling!

This post is part of a series of posts designed to teach you how to run long and strong.  Go check out the rest!



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  1. Hey- look at you! You look like an expert in a fitness guru book!

  2. Great post- I want to get one of these for both Josh and I! My legs are starting to feel the strain of both running and all of my teaching. I think its about time I invest! Thanks for the exercises.
    .-= Erica´s last blog ..Pumpkin, Bean & Veggie Soup =-.

  3. I love my foam roller so much! (I wrote it an ode once… It has eliminated all of my IT band/knee issues that used to plague me, and I didn’t even know about the TFL exercise. Thanks for this super informative post!
    .-= Daria (Summer of the CSAs)´s last blog ..RSS Links Widget =-.

  4. Oh how I love my foam roller, but hate it at the same time. That thing hurts so much when I do it, but I feel so good after. Thanks for the pictures, I can use a few more exercises.
    .-= Robin´s last blog ..One last 20 MIler =-.

  5. Thanks for the tips! I’ve definitely wondered how to roll out my shins. I’m not having any pain yet, just the occasional twinge and I want to do everything I can to stop any injury in its path now!
    .-= Caroline´s last blog ..Happy Anniversary, love! =-.

  6. Wow, this is a great how-to. I really need to get a foam roller!
    .-= Lindsey (Mrs. LC)´s last blog ..Noche Cubana! =-.

  7. This is a great post and the pictures are so helpful! You totally do look like a pro by the way 🙂
    .-= katherine´s last blog ..Negative Nelly =-.

  8. Wow, great information! Using the tennis ball looks painful, except for the foot portion, I’ve done that one and it feels good. Thanks for all the info.
    .-= meatlessmama´s last blog ..Tomato Basil Bread =-.

  9. I just recently started running but I can definitely see how a foam roller would be beneficical to me. Great post!
    .-= Amanda (Two Boos Who Eat)´s last blog ..Things to smile about =-.

  10. thanks for the tutorial – i always hear how good the foam roller is, but never know exactly how to use it. this was perfect!

  11. Thanks for all this great info! I’ve been hearing so much about foam rollers, but haven’t tried one yet. Glad to know I can pick one up at Target for that price. Definitely going on the list. Oh, and your title – Hilarious!! Thanks for the laugh. 🙂
    .-= Lori´s last blog ..Frittata for Dinner =-.

  12. what a great comprehensive collection of exercises!!!
    i love love love foam rollers and i wish i could dedicate even 30 min a week on them!! i really need to work on stretching……

  13. It all makes sense now. I never really knew what foam rolling was (guess I’m an A-hole, lol) but I used to see people with them at the gym. I now have a strong urge to try it, it looks like it would be soooo relaxing.

  14. Wow. This is fantastic. The soles of my feet are always tight/weird feeling, so I’m going to pick up the tennis ball roll you have in there. Totally helpful–thanks Matt!
    .-= Mel @ She Runs Brooklyn´s last blog ..Mysterious Running Gusto =-.

  15. Oh my goodness, I just found this website and I LOVE it!

    Thank you so much for publishing such great material. I’ll be back for sure 🙂 🙂

    .-= Chocolate Covered Katie´s last blog ..Banana Butter band =-.

  16. Thanks for taking the time to take the pictures. It helps so much. I have been looking for ITB stretches for the super flexible and have not found anything. This will hit the spot. I have a foam roller, but like other readers have said, did not really know how to use it. YAY!

    P.S. My first 5K is on Saturday! Thanks for all the tips.
    .-= Hethir´s last blog ..Perseverance, Fertility Recipe and Maca! =-.

  17. i love my foam roller!!! thanks for the pics too, there were a few on there i haven’t done!

  18. I love my foam roller and baseball (I use that instead of a tennis ball). Sitting on a baseball and massaging out my glutes/hamstrings has really helped with the muscle pain and soreness that I was dealing with over the summer. Thanks for the tutorial – I think I need to give my TFL muscle a little more TLC. Holy acronym 🙂
    .-= Megan (The Runner’s Kitchen)´s last blog ..East Village Eats =-.

  19. I’m another one who has heard all about the wonders of foam rolling but never really knew what it entailed and (obviously) have never tried it. This tutorial was great, now I get it!

    And I totally LOL’d at the title of this post!
    .-= Alison´s last blog ..Oh Woe is Three =-.

  20. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I have been hearing all this jazz about people foam rolling and not really knowing what it is/why (apparently I am too lazy to use google) so I applaud you for this post! Hurrah! I think I need to get me one of these puppies and fast. I hope to be a lot more pain and injury free for the next big race I train for and from what you say, it sounds like this could be a massive help!

  21. Maybe I need a foam roller…my shin has me side-lined at the moment!
    .-= Susan´s last blog ..Rest + shoe advice + dress! + pasta =-.

  22. Nice use of the word “a-holes”….I like the edginess I’m seeing here.
    This was also a great reminder that I was planning to buy a foam roller this week! YAY!
    .-= Rachel´s last blog ..Hump Day Treat: Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter No-Bake Cookies =-.

  23. Great information! Thanks!
    .-= Angie´s last blog ..Guest Post =-.

  24. So that is how you use the foam roller! I came across your blog a few weeks ago, and I have read through it numerous times for running tips/recipes/humor. I am running my first marathon in November and this blog has served as a great reference. I am so happy I came across it.
    .-= Gillian´s last blog ..Reason #59: Banana Soft Serve =-.

  25. this looks pretty fun and i can just imagine how ‘good’ the pain feels. i like this kind of pain… i’m definitely gonna have to give some of these a spin! thanks for the play-by-play!
    .-= lindsay´s last blog ..another day in paradise =-.

  26. Does rolling help if you’re already hurting? I’ve reached a point in my marathon training where my hip and knee are starting to ache pretty badly. I’ve switched shoes, I stretch more… but I’m afraid of it getting worse. But I don’t want to quit training!
    .-= Charm City Kim´s last blog ..The Question Women Generally Don’t Want to be Asked =-.

    • Kim, it might. It sounds like your injuries aren’t bad yet so you might be able to reverse it. When I had IT band issues earlier this year, the doctor recommended foam rolling. I wouldn’t do the tennis ball stuff on it though, it might be too intense. Just make that whatever pain you feel is like deep-massage pain, not pain from pressure on whatever is injured.

  27. I almost fell off my chair laughing at the mental picture of me doing those… One day!
    .-= Hanlie´s last blog ..Book Review: Slow Fat Triathlete =-.

  28. Thank you for these great tips! I am going right now to find one of the less drooled on tennis balls that my dog has to use all of these ideas.

  29. I got a foam roller for the first time this year but haven’t been doing all that you show here. Thanks for the tips and photos.

  30. Just got my foam roller and LOVE IT! Thanks for this tutorial, it rocks!
    .-= Whit´s last blog ..Soup and toast. =-.

  31. I am actually getting a foam roller tonight as I am having calf and knee aches( residual pain sprain from April) after some runs this weekend. Will definitely come back and use these exercises! Thanks!
    .-= Mary´s last blog ..Goal #2–It’s Personal =-.

  32. sweet mother of mary! foam rolling feels like getting an intense deep tissue massage from this lady
    but at the same time it felt kind of good. Only a runner would come up with such a torturous device, and I can see how runners would like using it :p

  33. Hey Matt,

    Great article. I read it a couple of weeks ago and now I’ve bought a foam roller. I just use it after doing anything that would usually make me sore the next day and it seems to work really well. A couple I’ve times I’ve done a hilly bike ride that would usually make my quads sore for a couple of days and no soreness

  34. Hey,
    Training for a triathlon and have been going pretty hard core on the swimming lately (and I’m also a boxer) and I’ve found my trapezius (neck-shoulder-upper back) has been achy and tight. Any suggestions to stretch that out? I’ve tried to work it out on one of those big ball thingies but it’s not really working.

  35. Matt,

    It seems that there are a lot of conflicting methods for rolling out the IT Band with a foam roller. Some methods have the roller placement on the side of the thigh, while I find that the biggest release of tension comes when positioning the roller on the lower(back portion) of the thigh. Very similar position to where you are sitting on the tennis ball in your IT Band stretch. Would you be able to shed some light on this or share your thoughts and methods for releasing the IT Band with a foam roller? Much appreciated. Love your site, what an asset to runners and veggies!


  36. Alely Wright says:

    Ugh. Giving it a try. Hurts like heck. The tennis ball massage is best done without the dog around. She thinks it’s her toy.

  37. of all the roller explanations out there yours is the best! The pics really help! THANKS!

  38. What a great article! I will be sharing this for sure – Thank you!

  39. Thanks for the tips! I discovered the foam roller after a nasty IT Band injury. I haven’t been using it to it’s full potential. Looking forward to some more rolling before the VT50.

  40. When do you foam roll? The day after a run? If I’m running 5 days a week I’m not sure what days are best to roll. The foam roller is a great tool, without a doubt, but only when there is no inflammation. I personally like to roll before my workouts, i.e. immediately before a run. Do you recommend any other times?

  41. Thanks so much for posting this…I am a relatively new runner and my shins are killing me! The person who sold me my foam roller told me that this may be do as much to my calves being tight as my shins, and I’ve been spending time almost every day with the roller on my lower legs. IT KILLS. I almost feel like I’m making it worse! I’ve been finding the knots in my calves with the roller and resting on it until the muscle seems to release, but the next day I can’t believe how sore I am. Will this soreness ever go away or am I doing this wrong? My shin muscles are really bothering me and tweak all day long even when I’m at rest. Help!

  42. Thanks a lot for posting this. I’m glad there are more vego athletes around!

  43. Hey man – your website is spot on. I have been battling an ITBS issue for 2 years, finally found a great physio thats helping me back into things. Its amazing how you dont realise how much you love something till its not on the menu anymore! Just book marked your article on meals – something I badly need to work on too, and this one, great stuff. Just made me remember that my sports Massage guy and my physio told me to get a tennis ball, so Ive just ordered some on ebay!

    Ive got massive respect for ultramarathon runners. It seems like something that is impossible. thanks for showing us all that the impossible is possible 🙂

  44. Hi Matt – I’ve recently sorted out a calve injury with my foam roller, my gosh it hurt to begin with but the pain is getting less. How often would you recommend doing it – the pain is still there when I do it in certain spots – but I am feeling exhausted since I started doing it. I figure thats because of all the toxins coming out of my muscles – should I do it once or twice a week or everyday?

  45. So glad I found this! I am training for a half marathon and hurt my IT band and hip flexor oh and my thanks for this will def add this to my stretches

  46. Bill Hudson says:

    Thanks for all your good works. You have a wonderfull website. Foam roller really does the trick as all your suggestion do. Bring pain free, what a concept.

  47. Thanks for this post! I have used a foam roller for about a year now, but have only done about 1/3 of these. Going to find a tennis ball right now… 🙂

  48. How about arm, back, and neck tissue? Can you foam roll these? lol… if not, is there a simple way to improve these muscle tissues?

  49. Hi, I am about to buy one of these from amazon, is the one in your picture an 18” or 36”? Does it matter?

  50. Thank you very much. Last year 5 weeks before the Livestrong Austin Marathon I got sidelined with a tibia stress fracture. Just started training again for the Houston Chevron (after getting the all clear) and I’m already experiencing achiness and and shin splints, so I am going to do whatever it takes to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Thank you for your helpful blog!

  51. Just finished my first 26.2…longest training run was 18 and took a month off before the marathon due to injuries. Glad to see I am not the only ignorama** 😀 Was searching the web because of knee pain and had heard about foam rollers. Thanks for the informative article! Just picked up a foam roller from Amazon 🙂 Will be exploring your site…I am vegan, as well. Thank you!

  52. I got my travel-size “Stick” in 2008 after having used it in high school cross country practices. It’s pricey but it’s a lot more convenient and less bulky than a foam roller.

  53. Brian Farmer says:

    I have shin splints on the interior of my shin. Pretty much 90 degrees in right along the bone. I can really only find foam roll exercises for the outside of the shin, any thoughts?

  54. This looks like a strength workout as much as therapy! Going to go looking for a foam roller today, and some tennis balls. 🙂

  55. Maybe I’m not clear on the procedure as outlined in this article, but in massage school it was heavily stressed that as therapists we avoid deep, direct pressure on the area midway between the greater trochanter of the femur (that nobby area on the side of your leg below your hip and TFL area) and the lateral edge of the sacrum (that shield-like bone above your tailbone). to avoid stimulating the sciatic nerve. It may be OK to contact it lightly/moderately here and there (I don’t recommend playing with it on a regular basis), but I imagine even one experience of deep pressure on it- like putting most or all of your weight on a tennis ball- can have a lasting effect. Just curious what anyone else’s take on this is.

  56. I love the foam roller! It’s helped me heal my achilles tendon/calf issues as I train for my first marathon. Thanks for the detailed instructions on targetting specific muscles!

  57. Rob Beach says:

    Spot on article, there is nothing I’ve found that inexplicably (I say this because, the science is pretty questionable) cures ITBS. I’ve been using a cheap roller and the rumble roller for over a year now and I wouldn’t give it up for anything.

  58. I have a foam roller. I can’t get over the pain of rolling my IT Bands. I see you use a tennis ball. How in the world can you get over the intense pain created from the pressure of either the ball or the foam roller? Ouch!

    I know regularly stretching my IT band helps my knees stay healthy. So, I assume foam rollers will help too, but I can’t seem to get past the pain. And get this… it is only my IT bands – I can roll everything else.

    • Tammy, I’ve since read that many people don’t recommend actually rolling right over your IT band, since it’s not a muscle and can easily get inflamed. I still do it sometimes (I learned this from Core Performance Endurance), but if it hurts you a lot, you shouldn’t.

      • The Stick (see carlos’ comment above) might help with this since it’s easier to control the amount of pressure and be gentler, compared to the roller. I’ve also just used my metal water bottle, or just massaged by hand. It’s also worth mentioning that there are very soft foam rollers available which may help.

  59. The bottom part of the quads above the knee are not very thick. The roller seems to put a lot of pressure on the bony parts just below the muscle. It feels like the bones are being moved instead of the tissue. Should I keep away from that area or is there a way to get around crunching the bones? As an aside much of the muscle vanished after knee surgeries and I never got it back.

  60. Rene Rikkelman says:

    Hi there, I am from the Netherlands and I have recently switched to a vegan + running life style. I have a quastion whych may sound stupid but I do ask it nevertheless: why do I need to blend my morning fruits? What is the health benefit? I mean: I have just consumed two small pears, a banana, a handfull of nuts, some blackberries and a pint of soy milk. Almost like a smoothie but then without the need of getting the blender (and doing the dishes). Eating the ingredients as they are seems faster. Or do I overlook something?

    • Mike Huggins says:

      I don’t know if this is true or not, but the way I understand it is, the smaller you break down the food particles (i.e., with a blender), the less your gut has to break it down. Your gut will absorb a higher percentage of nutrients since there’s less time being spent breaking the food down. Your gut needs less energy and you can perform you daily tasks without that “full belly” feeling. It’s worth testing and experimenting to see if blending really works for you, Rene.

  61. My brother in law uses a foam roller and one day I got curious enough to try it out…. Life changing! I would add to the tennis ball exercises this one which is listed on the site for sciatica pain relief but I also use it just to loosen and relieve my lower back after running or long hikes as I always get super tight in the lower back.

    Keep up the awesome work! Just sent a link to your site to a friend who i think would love it too :):)

  62. Here’s a secret: this is how you prevent (and treat) plantar fasciitis. I have had it for 2 years….Bad. PF is a lower leg, not foot, injury.

    • i have been trying to heal plantar fasciitis for 5 months now. so are you saying this rolling tool cured it for you. I have been working on my calf muscle and the achilles with massage. please respond.

  63. What’s the difference between using a foam roller and the Stick? (I have both)


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