3 Ways to Use a Foam Roller More Effectively to Treat Running Injuries
Previously, we took a looked at the latest science behind foam rolling to improve recovery and reduce soreness after a hard workout.
But soreness isn’t the only reason runners use a foam roller.
Managing and treating injuries is another popular use for foam rolling.
But is it really effective?
Unfortunately, there isn’t any hard research on foam rolling as part of an injury-rehab or prevention program for runners, but we can still take a look at some of the hypotheses about what foam rolling accomplishes to see why some runners find foam rolling useful for tight muscles, IT band syndrome, and other soft-tissue injuries.
Foam rolling and connective tissues
If you read the previous article on foam rolling, you’ll know that a number of recent scientific studies have found that foam rolling is surprisingly effective at reducing muscle soreness and increasing muscular range of motion.
One proposed mechanism for this an alteration in the consistency of connective tissue in the area that’s been foam rolled.
Graham MacDonald and other researchers at Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada describe this theory in a 2013 scientific paper. “Repeated stress placed on the soft-tissue of the body due to overuse or inactivity may cause abnormal crosslinks and scar tissue to form in the fascia,” they write.
Fascia is a type of connective tissue that ties together all of the soft tissue like muscles and tendons in your body. The most familiar bands of fascia to runners are the plantar fascia and the IT band, but all of the muscles of your body are encapsulated by fascia as well.
Macdonald et al. propose that these abnormalities of the fascia could be implicated in some injuries, and could limit range of motion and cause muscular soreness as well.
The raw biophysics behind soft-tissue manipulations like foam rolling is still poorly understood, but some preliminary work, including a 1992 paper on the physical properties of connective tissue by A. Joseph Threlkeld, suggests that the mechanical pressure that’s applied in a typical foam rolling routine is sufficient to induce changes in connective tissue.
The best way to foam roll to treat injuries
So now that we know foam rolling is highly likely to be effective at treating injuries, how can you maximize your time spent on the foam roller?
The actual rolling techniques used in studies on foam rolling and workout recovery are useful from an injury treatment perspective as well.
A few specifics on these techniques are worth highlighting.
First among these is rolling pressure: successful studies have used a dense foam roller, and instruct their subjects to put as much of their body weight as possible onto the foam roller (instead of supporting their weight on their arms).
This puts as much mechanical pressure onto your connective tissue as possible, which, according to MacDonald et al.’s hypothesis, is necessary to restore it to a more pliable state.
Second, the ideal rolling method according to Macdonald et al. is to use short, kneading-like motions on the roller, slowly working your way up from the “bottom” end of a muscle towards the top, then quickly rolling back to the bottom in one motion.
After this, begin kneading your way up the muscle again.
This method’s origin is probably from foam rolling’s roots in a massage technique known as myofascial release—indeed, foam rolling is sometimes still called “self-myofascial release” in scientific papers.
While there’s been no comparison of foam rolling methods, it’s not a bad idea to replicate the methods used in successful studies unless or until there’s a reason not to.
Using a stopwatch
Third, you should use a stopwatch to track your foam rolling.
Most studies do one to two sets of 30 to 60 seconds of foam rolling per muscle group—when you actually set a watch timer and concentrate on rolling continuously the whole time, you’ll find it’s a much more intense rolling sensation than half-heartedly rolling back and forth a few times!
Knowing that foam rolling primarily affects connective tissue gives support for a theory runners in the real world have already discovered: foam rolling is most likely to be helpful in mild to moderate injuries to soft tissue, and could be used as a secondary treatment for injuries associated with poor range of motion.
This explains why runners often find foam rolling quite helpful in cases of IT band syndrome, but not very useful with shin splints: the IT band is just a thickening of the fascia that surrounds the muscles of the thigh, but shin splints is fundamentally a bone problem.
Foam rolling is therefore a useful secondary treatment for soft-tissue injuries and injuries associated with poor range of motion.
By combining your personal experience with knowledge of what foam rolling might actually accomplish inside your body, you can figure out whether foam rolling is likely to be helpful with the specific injuries you encounter.
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