Sunday, November 3, 2013

Foam Rolling 101

As runners, we spend a great deal of time doing just that...running.  As a result, we often develop imbalances in different parts of our body and the inflexibility to go with it.  The tremendous strength of our lower body is often accompanied by an equal level of inflexibility and limited range of motion. This can affect stride length as well as the smooth turnover at higher speeds. It also leads to athletes modifying their natural motion to account for the imbalance found elsewhere.  For all these reasons, it's extremely important for all runners to identify these issues and include training activity that helps mitigate the problems that come with them.

It is extremely vital to include stretching and recovery time to account for the repetitive motion of distance running. "Stretching" is a word that undoubtedly comes with images of a runner in the chute doing a quick quad stretch before the marathon. It might conjure memories of doing the "butterfly" stretch in a circle with the team in high school. When I say "stretching", I'm probably not referring to the type we so often think about. I'm not talking about a quick stretch of the calves at a stop light or a quick pull of your ankle toward your backside. With all the hours we spend running, it takes a bit more to maintain flexibility and avoid so many overuse injuries.

There are two types of stretching that I recommend for runners. Those are yoga and foam rolling. I strongly prefer hot method yoga, or "Bikram Yoga" because it has been nothing but top notch for helping me overcome and maintain flexibility for ultrarunning.  A typical hot method yoga class is 90 minutes and, when guided by a trained instructor, the results are almost immediate. If you have the opportunity and means to do regular yoga under a trained instructor, then this is probably the best practice for gaining and maintaining flexibility as well as developing greater balance and focus. All of which translate directly to distance running.

Foam rolling is another form of stretching you should consider. In large part, the benefits from regular foam rolling can help you avoid and mitigate overuse injuries, especially those that come as a result of inflexibility in the lower body. I also like foam rolling for these reasons:

-Targets areas of concern
-Takes very little time

High Density Foam Rollers are often black
in color while the softer versions typically
come in lighter colors. The price varies.
They retail from $15-50.  

Foam rollers can be purchased online and in a number of designs. (The long foam roller pictured at the top of the post costs $30 from Of course, if you purchase one at a running store, you will probably be paying much more than if you found something at a hardware store. I'm not even going to suggest one brand over another because we're basically talking about a round piece of foam. The density, color, and length is something you have to decide upon. Do know that the harder the roller, the more pain you will probably experience if you are new to this.

So, in my are the most important things to know about foam rolling:

1. Do it Slow
The first time you use a foam roller should be the most pain you ever experience with it. Very slowly, roll over the foam and move very, very slow. When you find a painful spot, just stop. Keep your weight on the spot that hurts and don't move. You can wait there in that spot for 2 minutes if necessary. Once you feel that the pain of that specific location has passed somewhat, continue very slowly. Emphasize a very slow roll, like a steam roller moving in its lowest gear.

2. Do it Often
The pain you experience during your first session will diminish with each use as long as you continue to roll on a regular basis. The painful spots will smooth out and you will soon realize that it is hardly painful at all. Keep in mind, this is stretching. Your body weight over the roller is applying a stretch to muscle groups that need to maintain their flexibility. These areas include the lower and upper calves, the quads, the hamstrings, and the IT bands on the side of your quadriceps. Try to roll about 3-4 days a week. I find it useful to keep the roller in the living room and I'll drop to the floor during a commercial with my family and roll one of these areas.

Starting at the ankle, roll the calf area from the socks
to the knees. Stop when you find a painful spot...just
hold and move up only when you feel the pain subside.

A common problem for distance runners is IT band inflexibility.
To stretch this area, start from the knee and very slowly roll to
the side of your hip. Then repeat on the opposite side. Remember
to stop and maintain weight on any areas of discomfort until they subside.
Properly rolling each leg can take 1-2 minutes each, especially when
you first begin including this in your program.

When rolling the quads, start at the knees and roll slowly toward
your hips. Apply the same principles. To increase the intensity, put
all your weight on one leg a time.

You can use the foam roller for other parts of your body as well. Using the same principles of going very slow, you can yield benefit from rolling different areas of your back and arms as well. It may take a couple weeks to yield noticeable benefit from rolling. I can attest to the fact you will get benefit from this especially if you are training heavily. Friends, it might be a bit painful at first. In fact, those IT bands will probably scream at you the first time you try to help them :)

Run long and prosper.


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Thanks for your comments to Rise Over Run...I read all the comments and appreciate your time in sharing your thoughts. Run long, eat plants........Jerry