A foam roller can alleviate the muscle soreness that accompanies running. But how do you use one? Model, runner and TV presenter Nell McAndrew gives some expert advice
When you first take up running or push yourself to run faster or do higher mileage, it is inevitable that you will start to feel some aches and pains. It’s sometimes hard to know when it’s okay to carry on or when you should stop, but as you get fitter you will become more attuned to your own body. If all runners stopped every time they felt a niggle or a tight muscle, they would never get any training done, so the odd ache doesn’t mean you shouldn’t run.
It’s not unusual for muscles to feel stiff and sore after running. You can avoid some postexercise fatigue by stretching and by ensuring you rehydrate and refuel quickly after a run. But one of the best ways to alleviate muscle pain is via a sports massage. It increases the blood flow to your muscles and flushes toxins out of the body. Firm pressure needs to be applied to release tension in the muscles – it’s like being steam-rollered, but afterwards you feel like a different person. I really recommend it.
You can do some DIY massage yourself (or ask a partner to help you), but another effective way is to buy a foam roller. These are hard cylinders that you put on the floor and then roll your body along to apply pressure to the muscles. For example, if you lie on the roller on your side, you can release tension in the IT (iliotibial) band – the large sheet of fibrous tissue that runs up the outside of your thigh, connecting your knee and hip (a tight IT band can cause knee and hip problems). If you sit and roll on the roller, you can release tension in the glutes (the muscles in your bottom, which can become tight when running, giving you sore hips or an achy back).
Here are some examples of simple massages you can do using a foam roller. They should feel slightly painful when you do them – if not, you are not doing it right. Do them a couple of times a week after running.
Lie on your side, prop up on one arm and rest the roller under your knee. Use your arms to slowly push your body down so the roller moves up your leg, dragged along the outside of your thigh all the way to your hip. Then repeat, starting with the roller at the knee again. If you find a particularly painful spot as you roll along the outside of the thigh, hold the roller there and apply more body weight to the roller. This “trigger-points” the tension in the muscle, which will help release it.
Do each glute in turn. Sit on top of the roller with your weight on the side of the glute you intend to massage and your arms balancing your weight behind you. Start with the roller at the point where your bottom meets your leg and use your arms and legs to move your body back slowly so the roller moves up towards your back over your bum muscle. Repeat and then do the other glute. If you have a particularly tender point in your glute, a tennis ball is a better way to massage it as it has a smaller surface area. Sit on the tennis ball and move your bottom across it. Hold the tennis ball on the tender spot and apply more body weight to release the tension. Be warned – it will hurt!
Do each leg in turn. Sit down with one leg bent and the one you want to massage first straight out. Put the foam roller under the bottom of the straight leg where it meets the foot. Use the other bent leg and your arms to drag your body forwards so the roller moves up over the calf muscle to the knee joint. Lift your body up with your arms to apply more body weight on to the muscle. Remember, it should hurt: if the roller moves without you feeling anything, you are not applying enough pressure. Repeat and then do the other calf.
» Nell McAndrew has completed the Virgin Money London Marathon in 2:54:39 at her fastest. She is the co-author, with Lucy Waterlow, of Nell McAndrew’s Guide To Running (Bloomsbury, £12.99 paperback/£10.99 ebook)