Updated: Mar 20
We answer your questions about foam rolling your quads. When can it help for knee pain? When is it best not to foam roll your quads? Why does it hurt so much to foam roll your quads? What is the best method to use? Remember, if you need more help with an injury, you're welcome to consult one of our physios online via video call.
In this article:
We also made a video about this:
Foam rolling quads for knee pain
Foam rolling your quads can sometimes work wonders for knee pain, but in other cases it has little effect. It depends on what is causing your knee to be sore.
If your knee pain is being caused by something in or around the knee joint being irritated or injured (meniscus, ligaments, joint capsule, cartilage), then foam rolling your quads won’t make a big difference. Your quads may feel tight because they are trying to protect your injured knee, but it’s not the quads that are causing the pain.
In these cases, foam rolling your quads may make them feel less tight for a while, but the tightness is likely to return and your knee pain won’t be alleviated. It will only finally improve once your knee injury has healed.
In other cases, your knee may ache because your quad muscles are super tight or have trigger points that are referring pain into your knee. So, your knee hurts, but it is actually the quad muscles that are causing the pain. If this is the case, then foam rolling your quads may help to alleviate the pain.
However, foam rolling your quads isn’t a silver bullet. You also have to figure out why the quad muscles are so tight and sore in the first place.
If you continue to overtrain or continue with the activities that are causing your quads to be sore and painful, the pain relief provided by the foam rolling will not last, and you may end up further injuring your knee and/or quads. So, make sure that you adapt your training accordingly.
Why is foam rolling your quads so painful?
If you’ve ever tried to foam roll your quads, you’ll probably know that it can be extremely sensitive or even painful to roll certain parts. It’s usually the outer quads or the areas close to the knee that are more painful.
This is because you have less padding (fat and muscle) in those areas. So, it’s easy to squash the fascia and little nerve endings in your thigh against your thigh bone, which makes it hurt more.
Never foam roll a freshly pulled or strained quad muscle
When you pull or strain a muscle, you tear some of the muscle cells and fibres and usually also a few blood vessels. The body has to repair that injured area by first cleaning it up (getting rid of the dead blood and cells) and then by forming new cells. You can read more about the treatment of quad strains here.
The injury site is really quite fragile for the first few days or weeks (depending on how severe the injury is) and if you go and hammer it with a foam roller, you can make the injury worse.
Your quad may feel tight and as if it needs a good roll or stretch, but that tightness is not something you can stretch or roll out of it. It is caused by the swelling and/or accumulation of dead blood in that area and also by the quad muscle tensing up to protect the injury. This will improve by itself as your injury heals.
When can I foam roll my quads?
Foam rolling your quads is most useful:
When you want to improve your flexibility and reduce the normal tightness that develop after a training session.
When you want to reduce the normal pain or discomfort you feel a day or so after a hard training session, i.e. delayed onset of muscle soreness (DOMS).
As mentioned above, to alleviate knee pain caused by tight quads.
How to foam roll your quads
The research has so far not identified an ideal method. In most studies, they used longitudinal strokes (towards and away from the knee) and rolled each muscle group for about two minutes. They alternated this with sustained pressure on specific spots for about 30 to 60 seconds. I demonstrate this in the video above.
Don’t push too hard. You should be aiming for it to feel “comfortably uncomfortable”. If you end up with bruises, it’s a clear sign that you’re being too rough on your quads.
We’ve previously summarised all the current research on how to foam roll in this article.
How we can help
Need more help with your injury? You’re welcome to consult one of the team at SIP online via video call for an assessment of your injury and a tailored treatment plan.
We're all UK Chartered Physiotherapists with Master’s Degrees related to Sports & Exercise Medicine. But at Sports Injury Physio we don't just value qualifications; all of us also have a wealth of experience working with athletes across a broad variety of sports, ranging from recreationally active people to professional athletes. You can meet the team here.