Training Tip of the Week: Use Your Foam Roller to Work Your Core

Did you think we were going to let you forget your renewed commitment to fitting in the #ExtraSalt? NOPE! This week, you’re going to get in all your core, aren’t you? And if you’ve been struggling to do the same boring planks and crunches, here’s a little something to jazz up your abcersizes: your foam roller.

Ah, the humble foam roller. It can soothe tight calves and hamstrings, of course, but it is capable of so much more. Your foam roller is just waiting for your core to give it a chance!

Here, I’m going to share with you a few exercises that will challenge your core and make you a stronger runner. At the end of the post is a video instruction as a little extra insurance that you get the most bang for your #ExtraSalt buck with this routine.

Having a strong core is fundamental to running. It is crucial to good posture especially late in long races, protects your low back, and ensures your glutes and hips are doing what they should.

I’m a Pilates teacher, and one of my most popular classes uses the foam roller to do core work. In that class, we do about a 15 minute warm up, 30 minutes of core mostly with the roller, and 15 minutes of guided rolling. It’s also one of my favorite classes as an athlete, because it wrecks my abs and I get to foam roll for 15 minutes.

Two tips before we begin. Any of the exercises where the foam roller is long under your spine require a full length roller, normally about three feet. You want the roller to extend the length of your tailbone to your head. Second, I haven’t tried these on a patterned roller, like one of these, but I’d imagine it could be uncomfortable. These are best suited to a traditional-style foam roller. (If you need one, grab one here.)

Plank

Planks are a good way to warm up your core and the foam roller will make them extra fun. Do these with good form, please and thank you — long line hips to head. Watch that low back.

Start with the foam roller under your shins near your ankles. Hold your plank either on your forearms or with straight arms, just make sure your elbows and wrists are under your shoulders.

For an extra challenge, drop your toes behind the roller, pike up to a down dog position for a break, and kick the roller up to your hands. Hold your plank with the roller under your hands. (Skip this if it is uncomfortable on your wrists.)

Hold each for 15-30 seconds. When planking, you’re better off doing multiple short planks with good form than trying to hold your plank longer. (Think 4×15 seconds with good form rather than 60 seconds with so-so form!)

Bird Dog

This is a great functional exercise because, like running, your arms and legs are moving in opposition. If you’re new to this exercise, you’re on hands and knees with your hands under shoulders, knees under hips. Imagine you’re trying to pull your ribs together to engage your core. Reach your right arm and left leg parallel to the floor, and keep your left hip pointed down. No twisting! It might help to visualize a headlight on your left hip bone and that it’s shining on the floor. The more you reach your fingers and toes away from your torso, the more work your core has to do.

Make this move more challenging by adding the foam roller under your hands.

Repeat eight times on each side.

Toe taps

Take the roller long under your spine. You should maintain three points of contact while in this position: back of head, upper back between your shoulder blades, and your pelvis. Place your hands palms down on the floor along your sides for balance.

Work into this exercise with a progression, stopping the series at whatever step is challenging enough for you on that day. On each, inhale as you lift and exhale as you lower. Start by lifting onto the ball of one foot, lower, and alternate. Then lift up to the balls of both feet and repeat a few times. Next, lift one leg to table top with your knee above your hip, shin parallel to the floor, so 90° angles at both the hip and knee. Lower and switch.

More challenging will be to lift both legs into table top one at a time while using your hands pressed into the floor for stability. Maintain all three points of contact on the roller! Maintaining the 90° angles, lower one foot towards the floor, then lift. Switch and repeat.

Finally, lower both sets of toes toward the floor. Only go as low as you can maintaining your position on the roller and not straining your low back.

Still not tough enough? You strong Saltine, you! Lift your palms off the mat and use just your elbows.

Shoot for eight sets, either each leg eight times or both legs eight times.

Single Leg Stretch

A classical Pilates mat move, part of the Series of Five. Place the roller long under your spine, keeping those three points of contact mentioned above.

Bring one leg into table top and then the other, knees above your hips, shins parallel to the floor, 90° angles at both the hip and knee. Hands press into the floor — don’t fall off!

Draw one knee into your chest. Start by reaching the other leg straight to the ceiling. Switch the legs. For more challenge, lower the reaching leg to 45° or lower, but keep your low back neutral. Any strain in your low back and you’ve lowered too far!

Note this is not a bicycling motion but a reaching motion. You’re trying to stretch the reaching leg away and out of your hip socket.

Repeat six times on each leg.

Pro tip: If you’ve practiced Pilates, you can complete the rest of the Series of Five in this position. For criss-cross, leave your feet down and just work the upper body.

Bridge

Place the roller under your feet for bridge work. This targets the glutes and hamstrings in particular, but the core as well. Lift to a long line from knees to shoulders and try to press your knees away from your hips. Inhale to lift, pause, exhale to come down. Shoot for three to five reps.

Need more? Bridge up and then lift one leg to table top. Lower the leg and come out of the bridge, then repeat with the other side.

As promised, here’s a short video tutorial to help you get the maximum benefit out of this routine.

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These are just a few examples of ways you can incorporate the foam roller into your core routine. And hey, while you’ve got it out, spend a little time on self-massage!

Do you use your foam roller for more than just rolling?

*Note: Please consult with a Pilates instructor, personal trainer, or other fitness specialist if you’re not sure of proper form for any of these movements. Use a mirror to check your form, or video yourself on your phone. Or contact me on social media!

Started running in my early 20s and ended up running my first marathon 15 months later. Managed to break 3 hours in my 12th marathon. Pilates instructor passionate about the importance of your powerhouse in running and the mind/body connection. One husband, zero kids, mama to one Australian Shepherd.

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8 comments

  1. Great post! I have to admit that the foam roller is actually my least favorite piece of equipment in Pilates class, but you me inspired me to give it a chance!

  2. what an awesome tutorial – my foam roller is mostly gathering dust in my basement (and occasionally used as an obstacle course / weapon by my children) so I am looking forward to trying these out!

  3. This is a great post, but do you have any tips for the actually rolling? I’m 5 days strong and think I am getting some benefit…even if not, the practice is good I suppose.

    I do also have other uses for my foam roller: throw is at my cat, kick it when I’m pissed or use it as a neck pillow.