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Foam rolling can be the savior for injury-prone runners and those training extra hard — if used the right way. If not, you risk irritating, and possibly injuring, your body further.
To help you get it right, here’s a breakdown of the four most common mistakes I see runners make when using the foam roller.
Mistake #1: You foam roll directly on an injured area
It would seem to make sense that if your IT band is hurting then rolling directly on the IT band would help alleviate that trouble spot. However, the body doesn’t work this way for a number of reasons.
First, when it comes to foam rolling and myofascial release, constantly working the area of pain could create more inflammation and tension in the area, further tensing the muscles and fascia.
Second, where you feel the pain is not always the source of the injury. IT band trouble, for example, isn’t typically a result of the IT band itself being tight. Rather, IT band issues are typically a result of tightness in the muscle groups that attach to the IT band, like the gluteus maximus (your butt).
What to instead: Rather than constantly working directly on the area that causes pain, slowly foam roll your way away from the pain center to the connecting muscles.
Once you hit the attachment areas, work those thoroughly. Then proceed back to the area of pain and work gently at first. Visualize yourself “melting away” the tightness. Not only will you avoid inciting excess inflammation this way, but you’ll target the real source of your injury.
Mistake #2: You foam roll too quickly
Foam rolling hurts. Period.
Runners that know they should foam roll sometimes speed over areas because it hurts less than using slow, deliberate movements. Or, runners short on time will breeze through a session to check it off their list. Unfortunately, foam rolling quickly doesn’t accomplish the objective – releasing fascia and relaxing muscles.
What to do instead: While it feels better to go fast, and you do circulate blood flow, releasing fascia takes time.
Fascia is a thick, fibrous web of tissue. As such, it can’t be released with a quick pass of the foam roller. You need to be slow and deliberate in your movements. Once you find a sensitive area, slowly work back and forth over the spot. Again, be thoughtful and think of foam rolling like melting through the muscle and fascia.
Mistake #3 You stay on one spot too long
Ok, so this seems like a contradictory statement to mistake #2. But it’s not. Stay with me.
Runners take things to the extreme. Case in point; in college the trainer told me I needed to ice my achilles as much as I could when it flared up on me. I asked her how long between each icing was needed. She said 90 minutes. I set my watch to 1 hour and 45 minute intervals. Every 90 minutes I iced for 15 minutes. I did this all day 6 am to 10pm when I went to sleep. I woke up the next morning with freezer burn on my achilles.
That’s just a little story to illustrate I know how runners think.
With foam rolling, you’re instructed to work over and sometimes pause on very tight spots in your legs. I’ve seen runners take this advice and sit on the foam roller for 5 or 10 minutes, directly on the point of pain. However, staying on one spot for too long might irritate a nerve or damage the tissue, which can cause bruising and further inflammation.
What to do instead: Be gentle at first. Start with half your body weight, using your hands or other leg to adjust pressure, and slowly work into full body weight.
The maximum amount of time you should spend on any one area is 20 seconds or so. After this, you only risk irritating the spot more than you’re helping it. If you have a really troublesome area you can always come back for another session in the evening when the muscles has had time to relax.
Mistake # 4: You use bad posture and form
Foam rolling is hard work. I almost guarantee you’ll break a sweat.
The IT band position places almost all your body weight on your one supporting arm. Rolling the quads is basically the plank position. It’s easy to let your form deteriorate, especially if you are tired after a run. Your pelvis might drop from not having tight abs when doing quad work or your hips my sag while working the IT band. This can exacerbate existing injuries, form flaws or muscles weaknesses
How to prevent: Don’t approach foam rolling haphazardly. Stay focused on your form throughout your entire session.
If you find yourself too tired after a hard workout, come back to foam rolling after you’ve rested or maybe in the evening. You can also videotape yourself using your phone. It’s quick and provides immediate feedback after your session to see if you need to improve any of your positions.
If you need help with specific foam rolling applications and routines to treat your injuries, check our our Foam Rolling for Runners program. The guide includes detailed videos and instructions help you understand the “why” behind every movement and exactly how to execute so you’re confident you’re foam rolling correctly, avoiding common mistakes and you’re getting the most from your session. Check it out here.