Since starting this running gig I’ve been introduced to a wonderful thing called a foam roller aka torture device aka muscle saviour.
I have a love-hate relationship with it because it is rather painful to use but it’s good pain. You know the type one experiences during a sports massage. It hurts at the time but your muscles thank you for it later.
Having never used a foam roller before I was curious, so I asked Gaz Brown of GetRunning to explain why it’s good to use one.
Gaz uses the analogy of a rolling pin on pastry or dough. “If you work from the middle and roll it out it releases pressure in the muscle,” Gaz explained. “With running we are often dealing with inflammation at the attachments and tightness in the middle of the muscle, it’s a great tool for releasing that pressure off. It’s self massage, you can do it at home so it’s very cost efficient, and it’s very effective, especially if you are doing it after every run. It also helps with flexibility.”
Foam rollers (high density foam cylinders) come in various sizes and are useful for all muscles, but are particularly good for working on the bigger muscle groups like the calves, hamstrings, quads, ITB (iliotibial band) and glutes, that tend to take the main load during running. It’s also useful for improving the flexibility of large upper body muscles like the lats, that when tight can directly affect the way that you run (your running gait). The technique’s official term is self-myofascial release (SMR). By applying pressure to specific points on your body using a foam roller you are able to aid in the recovery of muscles.
Vaughan Craddock of Sports Lab also helped me understand how foam rollers work. He explained “that muscles are wrapped in ‘envelopes’ of connective tissue called fascia. Think of this as the strong white structure that wraps a chicken breast.
“Fascia binds some tissue together, whilst separating and allowing smooth gliding motion between others,” said Vaughan. “Injuries or repeated stress through training can cause scar tissue (adhesions) in the muscles or fascia, limiting flexibility and causing pain. Foam rolling stimulates sensory receptors (mechanoreceptors) just under the skin, and in tendons and muscles, through a combination of pressure and stretch. This stimulation is interpreted by the brain and a signal is returned to the local tissue, breaking up adhesions between layers of tissue, increasing blood supply (speeding up healing rate), decreasing pain and improving muscle flexibility and performance.”
Vaughan also clarified that it’s a temporary tissue response, but if performed on a regular and frequent basis, it can create strong positive ongoing effects. Frequency is the key to success with any flexibility techniques.
Both Gaz and Vaughan agree that the order in which you perform the foam rolling is highly important.
“Separate muscles throughout the body strongly interact with each other to determine our movement patterns and strength, so it’s important to understand the effect each individual muscle has on another muscle or joint,” Vaughan said. “It’s like a domino effect where if you release one muscle first, it makes it easier and more effective to release the remaining muscles.”
He added “the sequence you perform the foam rolling in will be dependent on your own unique compensations caused by scar tissue or pain from current or past injuries.”
Vaughan suggested that if you plan to use a foam roller as part of your running “tool belt” then seek advice from a trusted professional so they can help identify the correct sequence for you to perform your routine in to gain best results.
For me foam rolling has become a favourite part of the morning running clinics at GetRunning because the studio becomes a social meeting ground at the end of each run with runners spread all over the room bantering as they roll.
“It’s a good way for runners to socially finish a run and warm down,” said Gaz. “It almost re-sets you. It’s part of that journey of training as well.”