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Foam Rolling Effectively

by Coach Tim Cary

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I feel like I'm redundantly redundant. I get scores of questions about all sorts of different maladies and niggling injuries. And my answer almost always includes a discussion about foam rolling. While foam rolling (a branch of the myofascial release family tree) has gained traction and popularity over the last decade, most people don't utilize it very effectively. All too often, we resort to foam rolling defensively, such as after we're hurt as a way to help us recover from our injury. Rather we should be foam rolling proactively to be more efficient and faster runners. Used properly, myofascial release is a valuable tool in the endurance athlete's tool box. 

Why are we discussing myofascia and how does it apply to endurance athletes? Myofascia is a dense, tough, fibrous tissue that surrounds all of our muscles and bones. It tightens up as a protective mechanism in response to trauma. Trauma takes many forms: an acute injury like a strain, continual muscle compensations, or repetitive injury from poor training techniques. The fascia loses its pliability and becomes restricted, dense, and fibrous as the elastin loses its resiliency. These adhesions gradually affect our quality and quantity of motion. Adhesions can lead to poor muscular biomechanics, poor structural alignment, and decreased strength and endurance. The tightening of the fascia will also produce overuse muscular compensations, resulting in decreased performance and inhibited functional capacity. In order to release that tension and break up the adhesions, we have to manipulate the myofascia.  

Considering we take thousands of steps each and every run, it's not a shock that runners lay down some serious myofascia. This makes implementing some form of myofascial release technique a pivotal aspect of our performance and recovery. A general rule of thumb for how often to foam roll is a 2:1 ratio between training and recovery. In other words, for every run, you should do two rounds of some form of myofascial release. A quick, yet effective foam rolling session can be done in only 10-15 minutes. 

So if foam rolling is so important, why don’t we do a better job at it? We runners tend to put most, if not all, of our focus on running. We don't see the supplemental training as high a priority. The problem with that is by shirking the things we must do to run more effectively, we set ourselves up for failure. When Meb visited us, the time he spent on stretching, foam rolling, and drills was as long as or longer than the time he spent running. To be most effective, we must incorporate myofascial release into our schedule.

Foam rolling is like coaching a person who has a great sprint finish. You need to teach your kicker to kick to win rather than kick to catch the leader. We need to learn to foam roll to improve range of motion and elasticity of the muscles so they can perform better rather than simply to keep us from ending up on the DL.

The most effective way to implement myofascial release into your training program is to apply the 2:1 ratio of rolling to cardio work while also building in some sort of functional strength training. The rolling will help break up adhesions, which in turn will improve range of motion. A functional strength program will help turn on the proper muscles and allow your gait to become more efficient, which will reduce the trauma to your muscles. As you gradually develop both myofascial release and functional strength training, you will become a healthier, more efficient athlete.


Tim CaryTim Cary is Fleet Feet's Assistant Training Manager and coach of the Fleet Feet-sponsored Runnababez Elite team.  Over his more than two decades of coaching, Tim has coached athletes to three national team championships, five national individual championships, two national records, and numerous All-American and All-State honors.  Click here to receive Tim's weekly article via email.

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