How to: Foam Roll.

My mom and I have been going to a “Yoga for Athletes” class on Monday nights at our gym for the past 12 weeks. When we signed up, I thought it was going to be a yoga class, and by “for athletes” they meant that there were going to be a bunch of other inflexible athletes who run and workout and don’t stretch as much as they should (like me) so I wouldn’t get made fun of as much as I do in a normal yoga class. I was really wrong… but in a good way. I think we did downward dog for about 5 minutes over the course of the 12 weeks and that was about it for the “yoga.” It was mostly a stretching and foam rolling class and it was great!

We have a foam roller at my house, but I have never really “learned” how to use it. I mean, it is pretty straightforward, you are rolling out any tight muscles using the pressure of your body weight on the foam roller, but this class was really great for learning exactly how to roll each muscle. It was a 75 minute class and we usually only got to a few muscles done in each one because of how much time we spent rolling and stretching the individual muscles. Our instructor said that if we were to do our whole bodies we would be there for 3 or 4 hours. Ouch.

When we walked into class, we would always grab all of our equipment and set up our mats. For each class we grabbed:

  1. Foam roller.
  2. Yoga mat.
  3. Yoga block – support. 
  4. Yoga strap – stretching.
  5. Knee pad – support.
  6. Foot balls. 
    1. Spiky ball.
    2. Foam cushion ball.
    3. Bouncy ball.
  7. Medium sized plastic ball – tennis-sized.
  8. 2 X large plastic balls – soft ball-sized.

It was a workout just getting all of the equipment organized. When class began, we would always start with our feet. A lot of the people in our class had experienced plantar fasciitis and it really hurt them when we did foot work. I never really had any problems with the foot work so I guess I should consider myself lucky! We would start with the spiky little blue ball and roll it around with the soles of our feet. Next we used the little foam ball and compressed it with the soles of our feet in every single spot on our foot. When we had stepped down on it all over our foot, we would then “strip” the muscles and essentially roll it out. It was like a massage! With the little bouncy ball, we would then just get a little more pressure in all of the places we missed.

No two weeks were the same and though there was a lot of repetition, we also tried new moves every week and we learned a ton of stuff that we can now try at home. Foam rollers are the best and the worst thing to ever happen to a runner. For me, my calves and IT band were always SO tight and I cried a little inside every time our instructor said “Ok, we are going to do a lot of IT work tonight.” I may have cried on the outside too. It is killer. 

Some of the most important things I learned about foam rolling?

  • Don’t rush it.
    • Your muscles won’t get loosened faster if you rush it, in fact it may work the opposite. Take your time.
  • Be aware.
    • No two days are alike, each side of your body is different, and being aware of your body is really important. What is tight one week may be fine the next week. One run can change your muscles so much and being aware of that makes a huge difference in how you foam roll.
  • Be regular about it.
    • Foam rolling once won’t cure you forever. Sometimes when I do a longer run on the treadmill I notice certain muscles are super sore, whereas when I run on the ice outside, I use completely different muscles. Making sure to be regular about foam rolling (I know I am guilty too!) is going to be really beneficial long term. 
  • Don’t skip it if it hurts.
    • It’s not suppose to be the most excruciating thing you have ever experienced, but it likely will hurt. Whenever I roll on a massive bump (built up muscle tissue) it makes me want to vomit/scream/cry/yell/die and I want to stop but I know that that is probably the place that needs it the most. Don’t skip the places that hurt – eventually they won’t hurt anymore!
  • Do it after, NOT before.
    • Don’t foam roll right before a long run or race. Rolling the muscles loosens them up and makes them heavy (but knot-free!) for a couple of days, until you have hydrated, moved fluids around, and gotten them back to usual. Our instructor told us that a few people have foam rolled lots the day before a race and CRASHED and burned because of it. 
    • She recommended doing it about 3 times a week (try to do different major muscles every time) and NEVER before a long run or race. 
  • Hydrate.
    • It seemed silly bringing water to “stretching class” but when I didn’t bring water, I always left really thirsty. Our instructor preached water breaks like we were doing step aerobics and I thought it was kind of strange at first but we were working our muscles and that meant we had to hydrate just like any other workout!

Runner’s World has a good article about foam rolling here. There are even videos of some specific moves you can do. Sorry, I didn’t videotape myself foam rolling… that would have just been… awkward. Plus, the chick in the video has nicely tanned skin and sweet abs, so you are better off 😉 If you want to buy your own foam roller, there are some to check out here! There are some crazy gadgets for muscle recovery and stretching so the sky is the limit when finding new tools to help you prevent injuries!

I think I would probably get injured using some of that “injury prevention” gear. Some of those make the foam roller look tame. One thing we did use a ton of in class were plastic balls. They were just soft-ball size toys that could be found at any toy store or Target or Walmart and were awesome for muscle release. We put them behind our knees and sat down in a kneeling position so that the ball would be putting pressure on both our calves and hamstrings. Then we would rock side to side and work across the whole muscle. However; my favourite would have to be when we worked our QL muscle (between the glute and the lower back) with the balls. You set the balls right above the tail bone and then lift your toes off of the ground, tap them back on the ground a couple of times, then twist your legs side to side. Unreal. It HURT… but good hurt of course. 

It was a really good class and our instructor was so enthusiastic about it and really knowledgeable. We learned a ton about how to use the foam roller and how to stretch the muscles after they were rolled out. Incorporating balls, yoga straps, and blocks made it a diverse and interesting class because no week was ever the same. One of the best parts of class? Going “up the wall” for a few minutes at the end. It is exactly what it sounds like.

We put our legs straight up the wall, we did a “butterfly” stretch on the wall, we sat cross-legged on the wall and it felt AMAZING. If there is one thing I had never tried before that I plan on continuing – it is THIS. Sit “up the wall” for a few minutes in the morning or at night and it is glorious. I almost fell asleep every time. My mom and I both agreed that each week the 75 minute class FLEW BY. I swear we had just finished the foot work at the beginning of class and she was telling us to begin to put the equipment away. I have never stretched for that long in my life and it really amazed me how much time stretching can take and how much time it should take to actually be effective. I guess my 2.3 minutes of stretching every other week wasn’t really cutting it? 

As my training runs get longer, my muscles are working harder and harder and it was perfect that this class was on Monday nights – aka the day after my long run. I guess now that the session is over my mom and I will have to host our own little “Yoga for Athletes” class in our basement every Monday! 

Have YOU tried foam rolling? What do YOU do for muscle recovery and injury prevention?


  1. Guilty as charged. I have a roller but skip it too often lately and it’s catching up with me. Other than the roller and the foam ball… there are a lot of scary-looking foreign objects there! 😉

  2. I need a clas like that ….must snoop around Calgary to see where one might be!! oh the pain and torture…and how GOOOOOOOD it feels to have a date with Mr Foamie!

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