Stretching vs. Foam Rolling

By Ryan Warrenburg, On ZAP Endurance

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 recovery has become a staple in training regimens 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 without LeBron’s hyperbaric chamber and full-time recovery coach. Foam rolling and stretching are two recovery modalities we all believe we should do more. But is that really the case? And if it is, then when should we do them? And which one is the better?

Foam rolling and stretching often get lumped together. They do have some similar benefits, but which one is best largely depends on your needs. The first thing to understand is the purpose of each; the benefits, limitations and potential drawbacks.


Stretching is one of the most ubiquitous terms in all of sport, but it’s implementation is often misplaced. In some cases stretching can cause more harm than good. One of the biggest stretching mistakes is stretching an acute muscle injury. For instance, when you strain a hamstring the pain you feel is from tiny tears in the muscle fiber. In an effort to protect and heal those fibers the tissue tightens, provoking our instinct to stretch it. However, stretching exacerbates the problem by widening those tiny tears and increasing the recovery time.

Static Stretching

Static stretching has become less encouraged in recent years compared to dynamic stretching. However, in Running Rewired Jay Dicharry writes that longer static stretching, up to 4 minutes at a time, is the best way to lengthen 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 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. The recoil from the elastic energy in your tendons and muscles propels you forward. Static stretching 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.

Dynamic Stretching

Dynamic stretching is the preferred alternative to static stretching when it comes to improving range of motion before a race or faster workout. This 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. Remember, you should never stretch 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. Dynamic stretching does increase the range of motion in your joints and muscles. However, it does so by sending signals from the brain to the muscle to increase range of motion 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. This makes dynamic stretching a much better choice as part of a warm-up routine.

Promote Blood Flow

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.

Foam Rolling

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 one of the best ways, 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. Limited mobility can ultimately 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. Breaking up myofascial adhesions improves 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.

For foam rolling to work effectively it must be used as regular maintenance. If you wait until an issue becomes chronic you’re likely past the point where foam rolling will be helpful. At that point you’ll likely need a more aggressive treatment plan.

Foam Rolling Pre-Run

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 and move slowly. 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. 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!