Athletes today are competing at the highest levels for longer than we’ve ever seen before. As the science of recovery and body maintenance improves it has become a staple in the training regimens of athletes across all sports. Obviously most of us don’t have the means to spend the reported 7-figures on our bodies that LeBron James does.
However, there are plenty of things we can do to stay healthy and run faster that are significantly more affordable than LeBron’s hyperbaric chamber and full-time recovery coach. Foam rolling and stretching are two recovery modalities that we all believe we should be performing more of. But is that really the case? And if it is, then when should we them? And which one is the better of the two?
Foam rolling and stretching get lumped together frequently, and while they do have some similar benefits the answer to, “which one should I be doing,” depends largely on your needs. The first thing to understand is the purpose of each; it’s benefits, limitations and potential drawbacks.
Stretching is one of the most ubiquitous terms in all of sport, but it’s implementation is often misplaced, and in some cases can cause more harm than good. One of the biggest stretching mistakes is to stretch an acute muscle injury. When you strain a hamstring for instance, the pain you feel is from tiny tears in the muscle fiber. In an effort to protect and heal those muscle fibers the tissue tightens, provoking our instinct to loosen it up by stretching. However, that stretching exacerbates the problem by widening those tiny tears and increasing the recovery time.
The traditional type of stretching, static stretching, has become less encouraged in recent years compared to it’s counterpart, active, or dynamic, stretching. However, research suggests that longer static stretching, up to 4 minutes at a time, is the best way to actually lengthen the muscles and tendons. Nevertheless, if you have adequate range of motion then performing static stretching may be detrimental to performance. Striking the balance between having proper range of motion to run efficiently and having proper tension in the muscles and tendons is important.
Think of your muscles and tendons like rubber bands. Stretch a rubber band tight and it snaps back into place upon release, an example of elastic energy. As runners, the recoil from the elastic energy in your tendons and muscles propels us forward. Static stretching, especially prior to a race temporarily reduces your muscular elasticity, similar to the way an over stretched rubber band loses it’s shape and doesn’t snap back into place.
Active, or dynamic, stretching is the preferred alternative to static stretching when it comes to improving range of motion before a race or faster workout. Dynamic stretching is the use of continuous, running specific movements, to improve range of motion. To be effective and reduce the risk of a muscle strain, these should be done after a proper warm-up so you aren’t stretching cold muscles.
The difference between static and dynamic stretching is that with dynamic stretching the goal is not to increase the length of the tissue. While dynamic stretching does increase the range of motion in your joints and muscles, it does so by sending signals from the brain to the muscle rather than by elongating the tissue. This form of stretching dos not reduce the elastic properties of the muscles and tendons the way static stretching can so it’s a much better as part of a warm-up routine.
Both active and static stretching promote blood flow in the muscles, a benefit in both the warm-up process before a workout and the cool down afterward. The promotion of blood flow is the biggest similarity between stretching and foam rolling. While it may seem trivial, it is a powerful similarity, helpful for both priming the muscles preceding a workout and enhancing recovery afterward. The use of a foam roller before your runs is helpful because it promotes blood flow but can be performed on cold muscles without the risk of straining them.
Beyond the benefit of promoting blood flow, the foam roller should be a regular weapon in every runner’s body maintenance arsenal. Foam rolling on a regular basis is the best way, outside of having a full time recovery coach, to keep the muscles and myofascia loose and operating smoothly. It is very common for the myofascia, the protective sheath that surrounds muscles and bones throughout your body, to get stuck together over time.
This can present itself as limited mobility or tightness, and can lead to dysfunctional movement patterns, pain, and injury. Regular foam rolling does a tremendous job of breaking up myofascial adhesions that cause muscles to get “stuck” together, causing a whole host of problems. In that way it can also help improve range of motion, but in a different way than stretching does.
In addition to keeping the myofascial tissue in line foam rolling also helps keep muscle fibers in line. When your muscles are under stress, a necessity for performance improvements, the fibers can become damaged. The result is the difference between freshly combed hair and waking up with bed head. The foam roller helps smooth those muscle fibers out, just like a comb gives order to a head of tangled hair.
Foam rolling lightly before your run will help stimulate blood flow and wake the legs up. More focused foam rolling afterward can be used to work out myofascial and muscular knots. When you foam roll after runs take your time, move slowly and when you hit a knot or tight spot gently roll back and forth over that spot for 20-30 seconds before moving on.
Both foam rolling and stretching deserve our attention and are important factors to running healthy and injury free. And as we all know, staying healthy is the first step to improvement. Make time to work these into your routine as needed and run in good health!
*This Article Originally Appeared in the November 2018 Issue of Running Journal