Zach Friedenreich, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist, New York, NY
To some, the title of this blog post may be shocking. Foam rolling has long been touted as the end-all-be-all in terms of preventing (and even curing) soft tissue injuries, especially within the running community. I am here to shed some light on the truth behind foam rolling, and to provide you with a few simple, evidence-based alternatives to keep your legs in tip-top shape out on the pavement.
What does foam rolling do?
Foam rolling, although a popular technique to perform, does not actually stretch or increase the length of muscles it is being used on. This is a common misconception. In fact, recent evidence shows that foam rolling may decrease the ability of a muscle to perform repeated motions – something which occurs over the entirety of a run. Although it may reduce muscular soreness for a short period of time following its use, it doesn’t seem to be the key to reducing your risk of injury.
Workload Management to Reduce Injury Risk
You may be asking yourself, “If foam rolling won’t help protect me from injury during my marathon training, what will?” This is a great question and one the has a few answers. One of the best strategies for reducing injury risk is workload management. Running has many different variables that can affect your workload. Some simple examples include weekly mileage, number of workouts per week, and the intensity rating of each workout. “Spikes” in any of these variables throughout your training program are associated with an increase in injury risk. Thus, successfully managing these “spikes” will help to reduce your risk of sustaining a preventable injury.
Using the RPE Scale to Track Your Running Workouts
The next question you may be asking yourself is “Well, how do I determine what intensity, frequency, and duration is too much?” This is yet another great question (you’re on a roll with great questions), but is a much more difficult one to answer within the confines of a blog post. If you have not already, your best option is to start recording your workouts and rate each one on a 1-10 sliding scale of difficulty. This information is crucial in the assessment and management of your training workload by a licensed physical therapist, strength and conditioning professional, or running coach. Seeking their professional opinion to determine how to effectively manage these variables is your best option.
Strength Training to Reduce Running Injury
A less immediate (but tremendously effective) method of reducing injury risk in runners lies in strength training. Resistance training activities, varying from heavy weight training to explosive plyometrics, have been shown to improve running economy. Improving your running economy not only can improve your 5K, half marathon, or marathon time, but it can also improve your ability to cope with the stresses your body is exposed to while running. Below is an example of a well-balanced training week comprised of various running workouts and strength training sessions to get you started. If you are new to training, it’s important to note that this may be too much volume for you to begin with. Therefore, it’s important to check in with a running coach or sports Physical Therapist. Patience and trust in the process is key!
In summary, foam rolling may not be the answer that runners (and athletes in general) once thought it was. The good news is that workload management and strength training are simple and highly effective means of reducing your risk for injury and improving performance. Consult a sports Physical Therapist to get started on your workload management and strength training programs. Get on the road to injury-free training!
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- Cavanaugh MT et al. Foam Rolling of Quadriceps Decreases Biceps Femoris Activation. J Strength Cond Res. 2017
- Andrew M er al. Sixty Seconds of Foam Rolling Does Not Affect Functional Flexibility or Change Muscle Temperature in Adolescent Athletes. Int J Sports Phys Ther 2016
- Gabbet TJ. The training – injury prevention paradox: should athletes be training smarter and harder? 2016
- Alves R et al. Explosive Training and Heavy Weight Training are Effective for Improving Running Economy in Endurance Athletes. 2017