The Great Debate: Foam Roll Before or After Running?
by Tim Waanders, PT, DPT
The foam roller is every runner’s favorite tool…or at least it should be! It helps us with our achy muscles and can be a good alternative to having someone dig their elbow into your “tight” spots. However, you will hear many runners have differing answers on when they use their foam roller. Some say they use it as part of their warm-up routine, while others say they roll out after their runs. Is there any difference if you do it before or after? Does it really matter?
If you ask any physical therapist at Finish Line PT, they will tell you that it does matter. Foam rolling is best utilized during your warm-up routine, and should be the first thing you do before any dynamic stretches or running drills you do prior to your run. A recent systematic review published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine confirms that foam rolling prior to stretching during your warm ups can help improve physical performance and reduce the chance of injury. Now, I am definitely not against using the foam roller after your run; if it makes you feel good, go for it! Benefits of foam rolling after exercise are similar to other modes of myofascial release, including increasing blood flow to promote cellular healing, maintaining muscle flexibility, and reducing pain stimuli. But if you aren’t using it before your runs then you are not using it to its full potential!
The reason foam rolling is so effective during warm-ups is because it helps the muscle to relax. Foam rolling does not break up adhesions or “knots”, which is a common mistake people make when trying to understand the benefits of foam rolling and other myofascial release techniques. What is actually occurring is a down-regulation of the nervous system through the stimulation of certain receptors in the muscle fibers (i.e. the pressure of the roller is helping to stimulate a relaxation effect of the muscle). Once the muscle has relaxed, adding in dynamic stretches will help you lengthen the muscles through a larger range of motion while preparing you for your run or any other workout you plan to do. Studies have also shown that foam rolling before exercise can reduce the intensity of delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS), meaning your body is recovering quicker and ready to continue training without any setbacks.
While these benefits all sound great, they only work if you foam roll correctly. Too often runners tend to just throw their leg on the foam roller and roll as fast as they can. While that might feel fine, it is not going to give you the desired effect of muscle relaxation. Foam rolling should definitely be done on any problem areas; but if you want to hit all the main spots, as a runner you should focus on the quads, hamstrings, glutes, and calves. You should move slowly over the muscle group from one end to the other, making small motions back and forth as you make your way up or down. It should take you around 60 seconds to roll out one muscle group. Stop at any particularly “tight” or sore spots and let the foam roller sit there for a few seconds. You may also move your leg around to “floss” the muscle over the foam roller and further relieve that feeling of tightness. Follow the video below for an example of how best to foam roll, and remember to follow it with some dynamic stretching and whatever else your warm-up routine may look like!