Foam Rolling—For Holiday Travel Survival, Not Just Performance And Recovery

As endurance athletes we often become caught up in the latest and greatest workout, technique, or training tool while missing the simplest routines that can enhance our recovery and training. As a coach and massage therapist, I encourage athletes to befriend the foam roller after hard workouts, races, or even lots of sitting from travel or work. The goals of foam rolling are simple: increase blood flow and increase range of motion.

You might be saying to yourself, I have a stretch routine that I do, why do I need to foam roll too? Put simply, our skeletal system is made of bone and muscle working together so we can move. From a mechanical and structural standpoint, bones are levers and muscles are pulleys: when one pulley shortens, the opposite pulley lengthens. For example, raising a post-run milkshake to your mouth shortens the bicep on the front of your arm (the front pulley) and in response the tricep (the back pulley) lengthens. Both pulleys act on a lever—in this case, the lower arm bones. And like any structure, something holds it all together. In our bodies, that something is connective tissue. Ligaments attach bones to each other, tendons attach muscles to bones, and a material called fascia surrounds our nerves, bones, organs and muscles all the way through our bodies to absorb shock and distribute force. You can think of fascia like you would Saran Wrap: it can stick to itself and/or shrink down around its surroundings, limiting range of motion and decreasing blood flow. So after many, many milkshakes, our bicep shortens even between drinks, the tricep lengthens, and the surrounding fascia shrinks around the tissue, restricting blood flow and range of motion in the process.

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For most endurance sports, the muscles in the front of the body tend to shorten and the muscles on the back of the body get tight from stretching out. Anytime our hips flex or maintain a shortened position (bike position, overstriding with running, sitting, etc.), the opposing muscles pull tighter. The constant lengthening often leads to painful and stubborn muscle tightness manifesting into chronically tight hamstrings, ITB syndrome, or an even bigger injury. While directly stretching those tight muscles might provide short-term relief, chances are the front of your hips need help. The following two movements lengthen short muscles in the front, relieve tension in the back and increase blood flow and mobility—all things that ultimately help you perform your best day after day for training and racing.

Step 1: Grab your foam roller

While any foam roller will do, my favorite is the TriggerPoint Grid. It is small (13 inches, though they also have a long one and a mini) and hollow so it's easily packable if you're away from home. It also has soft foam with ridges that works muscles slightly differently than the solid foam rollers you might find.

Step 2: Roll the quads

Our quads do a lot for us and get really tight. Aside from the overall fascial tightness that can lead to the imbalances mentioned above, tightness also contributes to knee alignment issues (and associated pain or discomfort), IT band pain, and other maladies.  Rolling the quads helps address all of those by stretching harder to access fibers thereby lengthening the tissue and opening up the area for more blood flow.

Step 3: Loosen the hips

The easiest way to get the hips is to do one at a time. As you see, the roller is not used on the IT band itself. The IT band is like packing tape, not a muscle meant to stretch. The Tensor Fascia Latae (TFL), however, is a hip flexor muscle that attaches to the IT band, so as it shortens it pulls on the IT band. So rolling the front of the hip is much more effective than rolling the lateral part of the femur itself, especially as you move down the leg.

Once you've spent a few minutes on each side doing both movements, spend a few minutes walking to integrate the changes into your body. While foam rolling may be tough to get into the habit of doing, you should feel lighter, with more range of motion when you’re finished. You might feel slight soreness in the day after the work as your body adjusts, but it shouldn't feel any more intense than what you would expect from a pleasantly hard workout. If you feel pain or soreness for longer, adjust your rolling so less weight is on the roller itself. Happy rolling!