Foam Rolling?

We love to hate the foam roller. After a full round of strength training posts, I believe it is a good time to post about the benefits of the foam roller and how to do it correctly. I didn’t learn to love and value my foam roller until I had to walk backward down hills during the last five miles of a mountain marathon. Not pleasant. Since then, I have be come a huge advocate of foam rolling because I know it works. I know it keeps me running. If I slack off for a week, I can tell. My muscles start get tight and I start having some tension in the typical area’s in my quads and calves. And I know, if I don’t get serious with the rolling again, I’ll be wishing I had.
Rolling helps prevent injuries by keeping your muscles loose. Tight muscles do not move the way they are supposed to and then they get pulled, torn, or they cause injury to a supportive tendons/muscles that gets incorporated to help the tight ones than is typically would with a healthy muscle. Our muscles build up lactic acid which can make them sore, especially for new runners or runner conquering more distance. Rolling breaks this up and allows your body to flush out what it doesn’t use. Your muscles will eventually learn to burn the lactic acid as a form of fuel and you don’t get sore anymore (I know you don’t believe me, but as ultrarunners who have been running 100s a while if they get sore…). Tight muscles prevent us from using the most efficient running form we can because we don’t have the range of motion and we rely more heavily on support muscles. Running efficiently means more speed, more endurance, and less injury. Every runner wants those things, or at least the last one.
Can’t I just stretch to make sure I maintain mobility and range of motion? In my experience, no, Foam Rolling is the answer. Runners hear a lot about stretching and there is research saying stretching is helpful, pointless, or harmful to runners. Stretching done right, can be helpful (I’ve posted about yoga and it’s benefits to runners). But stretching done wrong can be very very bad for runners. Cold muscles should not be stretched. Muscles should not be stretched past the point of tension (not pain). If you do want to stretch, make sure your muscles are sufficiently warm, after a run is best. If you stretch without them being warm, you can tear them or strain them. How to stretch and which positions are best can be complicated. Foam rolling on the other hand is easy. I like easy.
Yes foam rolling is one more thing to consume your time. The thing with foam rolling is, you really can’t make an excuse not to, because you can do it and watch TV, talk on the phone, supervise children, help with homework, and play with the dogs. The one thing I don’t recommend is eating and foam rolling. It can be messy. The amount of time you spend rolling is going to depend on your body and the amount of running you do. I run 90 miles a week and do strength training on the days I don’t run, which means I’m pretty dedicated to my foam roller and we spend a lovely time together each evening.
For other runners, daily rolling isn’t going to be necessary. At a minimum runners should be rolling on days they run. It doesn’t have to be right after running, although that would likely  be best. I don’t have time to do it right after a run, because I have to get to work. I roll in the evenings before I go to bed.
How to foam roll:
  1. Purchase a foam roller. I like the foam rollers that are not actually foam. They are a hollow plastic tube about 18 inches long (45cm) and five inches (12.5cm) in diameter. They have contoured cushioning on the outside surface. You can use just a regular foam roller, which many gyms have if you want to try before you buy. You can try them at running stores too. The plastic tube ones are more durable.
  2. Find some floor space, light carpeting will be okay, but you don’t want super cushy.
  3. For the ITBand, place the roller on the floor and lay on the foam roller on the outside of your leg beginning at the him. Support yourself with your arms; you can put the other leg down if you need too. Slowly roll down to your knee and then back up. It’s important to go slow. Stop on any knots (bumps) you feel and rest here for 20 to 30 seconds.
  4. Continue rolling that muscle for 1-2 minutes and then switch.
You can choose to roll just the muscles you typically have problems with, or you can roll all the muscles of the leg. I recommend all the muscles of the leg because they all work together and if you are having a problem with one, it could really be a problem with a different one that is merely impacting the one that is causing you concern. You can also choose to roll only when you are having tightness or tension in your muscles or you can choose to roll on a regular basis. I recommend rolling regularly because you will prevent issues from coming up. It also takes less time if you roll regularly than if you have to roll multiple times a day to fix something.
Runners roll routine. Roll for 1-2 minutes on each of the following muscles:
ITBands
Hamstrings
Glutes (butt)
Quads (make sure you get all three during the time you roll this group)
Calf
Rolling can make a world of difference. I know it has for me. I even take the roller to races with me and on vacation.

 

Rolling, Rolling, Rolling, keep those doggies rolling..

contoured roller

I’ve written about foam rolling before, but it’s an essential element in my training/recovery routine and it merits repeating. Over the last week, i’ve been reminded, by my body, how important foam rolling is. After I finished the Bear 100 three weeks ago, I jumped right back into training mode, after one week off, because I have the Pony Express 100 in more 8 days. I skipped rolling for a few days in a row because I was busy and tired. My ITBand began tightening up in my left leg and my quad in my right leg. Both of which pulled the tendons guiding my knee caps resulting in tension and aching. I knew right away what it was and made sure I didn’t miss anymore days.

I get a lot of questions about when and how to stretch. My response has always been the same. If you’re going to stretch, stretch after you run not before. Muscles must be warmed up  before you stretch them or you risk straining or even tearing them. You can also “freeze” your muscles, causing them to go into defense mode and reduce your range of motion. Since the idea behind stretching is to help recovery and prevent injury you sure don’t want to cause injury.

How to stretch is a more complicated question. There are so many different ways to stretch and it’s hard to know which muscles/tendons to stretch in the first place. Of course, if you’re going to stretch, it’s important to stretch big muscles you use for running: quads, hamstrings, glutes, calves, and ITBands. Stretch to the point of it feeling tight and not super tight, just when it first starts feeling tight. You should hold the stretch for twenty to thirty seconds and then release it completely. Go through your stretches two to three times depending on how tight they are.

Why do I keep saying “if” you stretch? Because using a foam roller is better than stretching. A foam roller will do everything stretching does and more. It lengthens your muscles and tendons and also increases your flexibility. The “more” of foam rolling is its ability to break up the tension in your myofascial layer (deep connective tissues).

Here are the basics of foam rolling: relax the muscles you are rolling, but keep your core tight and stable. If you let your core sag, you’re not going to get the right angle and pressure on the tendons and muscles you’re trying to hit; roll slowly over the area, going back and forth for one to two minutes. Rolling isn’t all fun and games. It hurts at times. In fact, it can hurt pretty bad when you hit a knot. If you roll on a regular basis, you develop less knots.

Roll Happy!

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.

 

So I’ve heard that stretching doesn’t do much…

“Wow, that can’t be good,” I said to my son as we finished the ab workout he designed.

“What’s not good?” he asked.

“My quads are really tight. I can feel them strain against my knees sitting just here.”  I was sitting back on my ankles. My legs folded underneath me, knees on the floor.

Tight muscles are not a runner’s friend. Sure, sometimes they loosen up as your body gets warm during that first mile or so, but you risk tearing them if they don’t get warm enough. Tight muscles also cause problems up and down the kinetic chain because they restrict the mobility of all muscles and tendons connected with them. It also requires opposing muscles to work harder.

Stretching or not stretching is not the issue here. The question is when to stretch. Many research studies show that stretching can reduce your chances of injury. It also assists in maintaining a good stride. That said never ever stretch cold muscles. You will tear them. If you need to stretch before you run, do a 10-15 minute warm-up on a bike or jump roping or something that does not require big movements.

 Using a foam roller or The Stick, in my opinion, is the best way to warm up before a run. You can get them at most running stores, and I’m sure Amazon has them. You use it by placing it on the floor, lying on the tight muscle on top of the roller, and rolling it down the length of the muscle. Try to put as much of your body weight on the roller as you can tolerate. If there are knots in the muscle, it will be painful, and it can leave small bruises if you are aggressive with it. I stop and rest on the knot for 30 seconds or until I feel it release. The Stick is another massage tool (and it’s more portable than a foam roller). It is approximately two feet long, and one inch in diameter. It has beads along its center with handles on both ends. You can also find these at running stores. Many chiropractors use them.

  I roll my quads, hamstrings, illiotibial band and calves twenty five times each with the Stick before my runs. By doing this, they are warm and knots are worked out of them. Blood is flowing nicely to them, so they have plenty of oxygen, and they are ready to go.

 I have worked through ITB syndrome, ankle sprains, shin splints, and trigger point issues in my calves with the foam roller and stick. I love them, and they go to all my races.

 

Stretch after you run. I also use a foam roller after my run and again before bed, if I notice any knots or tight spots in any muscles. I recommend using a static stretch (no bouncing) on your groin, quads, calves, and hamstrings. Hold each stretch for 25-30 seconds. Holding it longer does not help. Rotate through each stretch two or three times.  Do not stretch to the point of pain only until you can feel the tightness in the area.

 

Hopefully, I can get my quads to loosen up before the marathon on Saturday (Salt Lake City Marathon) and surely before Salt Flats 100 six days later. I will be rolling around on my foam roller each night and stretching at my desk and between court hearings until go time.