Foam Roller vs. Stretching

foam roller

One of my friends called me a few days after running a marathon and asked, “I was in tears for the last few miles of the race because my IT Bands were hurting so badly. Have you ever had IT band issues?”

“Yes, I have. I ran a mountain marathon with about 9,000 feet of descending and had to walk down the last few hills backward because it was too painful to go forward and it felt like my knee would collapse.”

“What did you do about it?”

“Foam roller.”

The foam roller is my go to remedy for most running aches and pains especially ITband and pulled or  tight muscles. I recommend getting the foam roller that is actually not foam, but a hollow plastic tube 18 inches long (45cm) and five inches (12.5 cm) in diameter with contoured cushioning around it (orange one below).  You can use actual hard foam with the same dimensions (blue below); it just doesn’t last as long.

actual foam rollercontoured roller

I’ll use the IT band as an example since that’s where we started, but the process is the same for any muscle in the body.

Rolling is best done on a hard surface. For the IT Band you lay on the foam roller on the outside of your leg beginning at the hip. Support yourself with the arm on the same side. Slowly roll down to your knee and back again. You must go slow enough that you catch any knots. When you find a knot, a particularly sore spot or and actual bump, stop for approximately 30 seconds or until the knot releases.

You may have to start with supporting yourself with the other leg in front of your body if the amount of pressure without it causes too much pain or your arm is not strong enough to hold you up (as shown above). As much body weight as you can handle should be on the foam roller.

With acute IT Band pain, you should be rolling twice a day for ten to fifteen minutes each time. It will take a few days to a week for you to be able to return to running. When you are able to return to running don’t stop rolling just reduce it to once a day.

Ideally, you will incorporate foam rolling into your daily routine rolling the IT band, quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves. This will keep the muscles supple and prevent tightening and pain. You can do all four area’s in ten to fifteen minutes if there are no knots.

different positions on foam roller

What about stretching?

Stretching and rolling do two different things. If you are only going to do one or the other, I recommend foam rolling over stretching (I know time is limited). Stretching lengthens muscles, which is good and helpful for tight muscles. I generally recommend both with an injury.

Foam rolling breaks up scar tissue and releases knots. Stretching does not do this, which is why I recommend rolling over stretching. Scar tissue prevents the muscles and tendons from being elastic and sliding smoothly past one another. Both cause pain. Knots are a nasty business. They cause soft tissues to pull toward the knot, usually causing pain somewhere farther down or up from the knot. Knots can change your stride and the way your foot contacts the ground. Ultimately, knots can lead to other problems and injuries.

So love to hate your foam roller. It can be painful, but it is a good kind of pain that will keep you running.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s