Some runners think of foam rolling as a necessary evil at best, a tortuous experience at worst. Elite US distance runner Chelsea Reilly Sodaro, however, views the 30 to 45 minutes she spends daily on rolling and other forms of self-therapy as a much-needed release from the stress and tension of hard training.
“At the end of the day, I pull my foam roller out when I’m watching TV with my husband,” says Sodaro, 27, who has a PB of 32:05 for 10,000 metres. “I can spend time with him and we can unwind. It’s a nice opportunity to multitask a little bit and to end my training day.”
Self-myofascial release—the technical term for techniques like foam rolling and the use of stick-like self-massagers—seems to improve range of motion, ease soreness, and enhance recovery, according to recent research reviews in Current Sports Medicine Reports and the Journal of Bodywork & Movement Therapies. Many runners also find the tools calm their minds and give them a powerful sense of control over their health and recovery.
Ultimately, these positive mental states often translate into improved performances. “When we feel better, we do better; when we do better, we feel better,” says Robyn LaLonde, M.S., a Nike running coach. “It’s not going to fix an injury but it might prevent one, and it will make you feel like you have control over the process. If it’s a control on the stress of training and racing, it might just get you a PB.”
By easing pain and stiffness, foam rolling may reduce levels of stress-related hormones like cortisol, LaLonde says. A regular self-massage routine also provides runners a critical tool for coping with physical setbacks, she notes. Imagine two runners who feel a new twinge during the taper before a big race; one foam rolls every day, while the other lets her roller gather dust in the corner. The regular roller won’t panic, because she has a proactive way to address her issue—plus an understanding of the time, technique, and pressure that work for her. Meanwhile, the other runner may first freak out, then overdo it with the foam roller to compensate.
Some have even speculated that the fascia—the web of tissue that covers and connects muscles and internal organs—carry sensory data and emotions travel just like nerves do. That means rolling over and releasing knots and kinks could transmit positive messages directly to the brain, providing an emotional boost that leads to faster running, says Greg McMillan, M.S., an exercise physiologist and running coach.
Scientists have yet to prove all of these psychological perks. One small pilot study, published in 2014 in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science, found no differences in cortisol levels between women who foam rolled for 30 minutes and those who merely reclined for the same period of time. But regardless of the research, Sodaro says the confidence she derives from her routine compels her to haul her foam roller everywhere she travels (she ties her stretching rope around it and loops it over the handle of her carry-on bag).
Completing the same rope-stretching, rolling, and dynamic activation moves before each hard workout and race keeps Sodaro focused and primed to run her best. “It’s like any aspect of training. You’ll find when an athlete really buys into like a coaching philosophy, they are way more likely to be successful than if they’re constantly questioning what they’re doing,” she says. “Same goes for me with my self-care and foam-rolling protocol. If I believe foam rolling is going to help me stay healthy and be more prepared, that’s almost just as important as the physical benefits.”