Runners can benefit from using foam rollers
Walk into any gym and among the rows of dumbbells, stability balls, and resistance bands you may find long, cylindrical pieces of foam. While they may seem odd and out of place, these pieces of foam, called foam rollers, provide a valuable service to runners and athletes alike.
Foam rollers are a tool that can help reduce knots in muscle tissue that, when ignored, lead to altered proprioception and muscular imbalance, which then lead to injury.
Photo courtesy of healthynomics.co.uk
What is SMR?
Foam rollers are used in self-myofascial release (SMR). SMR is a stretching technique that focuses on the neural and fascial systems of the body. The fascia is a tissue that surrounds and separates muscle tissue (Clark, M.A. 2008). When the fascia becomes tight and develops knots or adhesions, SMR uses a gentle force to help relax the area and loosen knots. The tightness in the fascia cannot be relaxed through static stretching alone, which is why foam rolling is necessary.
Muscle imbalances in runners
Runners place continued stress on specific muscle groups—hamstrings, calves, quads, glutes—over long periods of time. During this time, continued overuse can create tightness and distortion in muscle tissue because certain muscle groups become overused and others become underdeveloped. This process is exacerbated when the body compensates for primary muscles and uses secondary muscles to do the job instead, which is called synergistic dominance. Distortion patterns in muscles can be caused by overuse of certain muscle groups, lack of flexibility or core strength, or poor training technique (in runners, poor form).
It is important to note that most people accrue distortion patterns from everyday living. Sitting for long periods can shorten hip flexors, and working at a computer or driving can cause the shoulders to roll forward and slump, tightening the pectoral muscles. Running with these postural distortions can lead to continued muscular imbalances and frequent, cumulative injuries.
When should you foam roll?
Foam rolling has many benefits, especially for runners. Using the foam roller loosens knots, which increase flexibility in tight areas. This in turn causes muscles to begin to activate properly, allowing for proper muscle recruitment, which can lessen injuries and increase performance.
Unlike static stretching, where studies conflict on whether it is useful, foam rolling can be done before and after a workout and is definitely beneficial for runners and athletes. Ideally, foam rolling should be done before a workout in order to loosen knots and stimulate proper muscle recruitment for the workout.
How to foam roll
You can use a foam roller on almost any part of the body, but for most runners the areas of focus will be the legs. In order for SMR to be effective, you must find a tender spot and hold pressure on that spot for at least 20 seconds. This allows time for the tight spot to begin to relax. Over time, the tightness you initially feel will lessen as your knots release.
For proper foam rolling exercises, consult a personal trainer or a fitness professional. Make sure to consult your physician before beginning any new exercise program.
(Clark, M.A., Lucett, S.C., and Corn, R.J. (2008). "NASM Essentials of Personal Fitness Training". Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins: Baltimore, MD.) Chelsea Earls is a RRCA cert. running coach and NASM cert. personal trainer who works at Running Fit in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at email@example.com