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Foam Rolling – The Basics

By Nicole Drummer | Oct. 25, 2011, 12 a.m. (ET)

As a coach, I encourage all my athletes to utilize a foam roller in their training — the recovery part of training. Many of you have probably heard of foam rolling and have certainly seen these dense foam cylinders in your favorite running or cycling store, and perhaps also at the gym. This article will take a quick look at the purpose of foam rolling and how a triathlete can use it to aid in recovery. Let’s start with the basics:

What is a foam roller?
A foam roller is a foam cylinder, approximately 6 inches in diameter. They vary in length and density. They can be purchased online or at running/cycling/tri or other sport specialty stores.

Why do you want to foam roll?
Getting a regular massage is something a lot of us know we should do, but don’t. Foam rolling is an inexpensive way to provide self massage. It’s not as good as a “hands-on” massage from a  licensed massage therapist, but proper utilization of a foam roller to break up adhesions in the muscle tissue and/or fascia can help you recover faster and keep your muscles ready to train. In layman’s terms, breaking up the adhesions in the soft tissue aids in decreasing trigger points from forming and brings blood flow to the area. Increased blood flow will bring nutrients and assist in repairing damaged muscle that your last workout may have caused.

How do you foam roll?
There are several methods to foam rolling - you can find a trigger point (tight, painful spot) and just apply pressure there, or you can roll along the muscle (like the sweeping strokes of a massage therapist). You can also do a combination of the above. One thing to note — don’t foam roll joints or injured tissue.

How often should you foam roll?
Athletes training 5-6 times a week can probably foam roll daily, and right after a workout if possible. If you can spend 15-20 minutes foam rolling and 10-15 minutes stretching before bed, you’ll probably sleep better, feel better and recover faster, which means your next workout will be more effective. Note: foam rolling might be painful on chronic tight spots, but listen to your body as it shouldn’t feel like injury pain. If it does, go see a physical therapist!

Now that the basics are covered, here are some major muscle groups triathletes should consider foam rolling:

Glutes: One of the largest muscle groups and a primary driver in our sport, having a healthy gluteus maximus, minimums, medius is important.

This position helps isolate the piriformis.

IT Band
: While Illiotibial band (a thick section of fascia from the hip to knee) issues usually stem from a muscle imbalance somewhere, keeping the ITB and the muscles around it loose is quite helpful to our running and cycling performance.

Calves: Trust me, you are probably not the only triathlete with notoriously tight calves. Foam roll and stretch them after a workout and you’ll be glad you did!

Lats: I find that triathletes often focus on stretch and strengthening the legs, but often forget the upper body, including the lats. Those latissimus dorsi are key in swimming power. Keep this muscle flexible! Just be careful not to put too much pressure on your ribs. 

: Chances are you sit at a desk all day, and even if not, your bike position pulls your shoulders in. Roll out your back to keep it more mobile (you might even feel your back crack!) and get those muscles between your shoulder blades. You can highlight them by reaching your arms up to the sky.

After this it’s also not a bad idea to stretch out your pecs by laying with the foam roller along your back, head resting on the end of the roller, and open your arms out to each side like a T. If the foam roller is too intense, you can do this with a pool noodle or a rolled-up towel.

Adductors: Another neglected muscle group that is the inside of your thigh. While rolling these out might look “interesting” to the casual observer, put your inhibitions aside and get at those adductors!

Quads: Last but not least, get the quads. We use them a lot in our sport so help them out by rolling them out!

Once you’ve finished a foam rolling session, stretch out, drink a glass of water and enjoy your recovery!

Special thanks to Andrea Mercier Kippel PT, DPT of Physiotherapy Associates - Cheyenne Mountain for feedback on the article and for taking the photographs.

Nicole Drummer is the author of The Triathlete's Guide to Race Week. She is also the founder and head coach for NEO Endurance Sports & Fitness, a Colorado-based endurance sport coaching company. She is a USAT Level I Certified Coach, a USA Cycling Level III Coach, and also coaches triathlon for Team In Training. Learn more at You can contact Coach Nicole on facebook, twitter or via email at