Know How to Stretch and Foam Roll for Running

Stretching and foam rolling are often used by personal trainers and coaches to get fitness clients and athletes ready for exercise. How can you reap some of the benefits of warming up for yourself?

You're likely to experience anywhere from 2.5-33.0 running related injuries if you spend 1000 hours running. 

While in most cases, you can't point to one specific reason for an injury, we can help limit some injuries by warming up, stretching and foam rolling.

Warming Up and What It's Good For

Warming up and stretching aren't the same thing. Warming up is designed to get you ready for specific activities. Stretching is for maintaining and enhancing flexibility.

When you've warmed up properly you've benefited in a good number of ways:

  • Increased core body temperature
  • Increased target muscle temperature
  • Enhanced neural function
  • Improved joint range of motion
  • Blood flow promoted to active muscles
  • Enhanced metabolic function and baseline oxygen consumption
  • Increased the potential for further gains in strength, speed and power through the effects of postactivation potentiation.

So, warming up is more concerned with mobility and stretching is more concerned with flexibility. What's the difference between the two?

The Difference Between Flexibility and Mobility

It's important to note that normal and increased flexibility do not guarantee normal movement.

Range of motion (ROM) is the amount of movement that can occur at a joint.

Flexibility is a measure of the range of motion that a joint can be taken through actively and passively.

Things that affect flexibility include:

  • Joint Structure-a ball and socket joint like the shoulder has more ROM than a hinge like the elbow
  • Age-younger people tend to be more flexible
  • Sex-women tend to be more flexible than men
  • Muscle stretch tolerance-the ability to tolerate the discomfort of stretching
  • Tissue elasticity and plasticity-the ability of your tissues to stretch to new lengths and return to normal at rest
  • Neural control
  • Resistance training-developing both active and passive muscle groups through a full ROM
  • Muscle bulk-bigger muscles may limit ROM
  • Activity levels-more active people tend to be more flexible

Dynamic flexibility is the range of motion that you can take yourself through with voluntary muscle actions.

Static flexibility is the range of motion that a partner or external force like gravity or a machine can take you through.

Mobility adds a little spice to flexibility, it includes movement. Balance, coordination,control and the ability to produce force through a range of motion are all required to boost performance in a sport. Adding range of motion without control does nothing for performance.

The goal of training is to optimize your flexibility in relation to the activity that you're performing.

What types of Stretching are best?

Stretching is commonly done before and after exercise or as a separate session but, not all stretching is the same.

There are four kinds of stretching:

  1. Static Stretching 
  2. Ballistic Stretching
  3. Dynamic Stretching
  4. Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation or PNF Stretching

Static stretches start slow and are held at the end range of motion for 15-30 seconds. They've been shown to help increase range of motion and flexibility.

Ballistic stretches involve effort and are bouncing type movements that are not held. They can be just as effective for ROM and potentially flexibility. Because of their aggressive nature, personally I don't recommend them. They may injure previously aggravated areas and limit range of motion.

Dynamic stretches place an emphasis on mimicking movements that will be used in sport specific activities. Because control is involved through full ROM, they help improve mobility and are prefered when warming up.

PNF stretches can be done in three different ways, typically with a partner, involving some muscular contraction and relaxation. PNF may be the most effective method for stretching and increasing static flexibility as it allows for relaxation within a muscle. There is however, a level of expertise required to be able to use a PNF stretch.

Dynamic and ballistic stretches can be performed before your workouts.

Passive and PNF stretching should be performed within 5-10 minutes after your workout while your body temperature is still elevated.

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How Should You Warm Up?

Stretching beforehand is a common way that many people warm up. There is however, more than one way to warm up for the activity you are about to perform.

Some common warm up routines for general fitness clients typically have two parts:

  1. A general aerobic activity such as walking or jogging for 5-7 minutes.
  2. Dynamic stretching aimed at getting ready for the sessions exercises.

If you're practicing for a sport like a running competition, you may include dynamic exercises and techniques that mimic activities you do in your sport.

Some dynamic activities you may do before running include:

  • Lunges (normally or with added reaching or an elbow towards instep)
  • Inchworms
  • Arm swings
  • Knee tucks
  • A-Marching
  • B-skips
  • A hurdle series

Alternatively: Another common protocol geared towards athletics is the Raise, Activate and Mobilize, and Potentiate (RAMP) protocol. It directly addresses potentiation by using sport specific movements that increase in intensity.

The areas that athletes (or really anyone) need to focus on warming-up include;

  • Ankles
  • Hips
  • Thoracic spine (upper and middle back)

You may also pay some attention to your hamstrings and lower back or any other areas that give you trouble. Foam rolling is a tool that can be useful in aiding this process.

Do you want to use a foam roller to help you warm up? Get the most out of your foam roller by finding out how to use it.

Self-Myofascial Release Might look like a Foam Roller

Self-myofascial release is a form of manual therapy. Manual therapy is a way of manipulating joints, muscle and soft tissue often used by physical therapists, massage therapists, athletic trainers and chiropractors.

It is difficult to find a consistent definition for fascia and the body of research related to it is still young but, for the purposes of this article you can think of fascia as connective tissue that forms layers between and around muscle.

So why should you care about fascia and self-myofascial release?, this quote from independent researcher Chris Beardsley of clears this up for us:

"It is believed that muscle and/or fascia may under some circumstances tighten (by some as yet undetermined mechanism) and what was previously a pain free range-of-motion may now cause pain and blood flow restrictions. It is suggested that myofascial release can rectify this problem."

If you would like to peep a very lengthy review of the body of research on foam rolling and self-myofascial release, I would recommend you give this a gander. It was carried out by Chris in his monthly research review.

Foam rolling is one of the most common ways to perform myofascial release on yourself. How it works and how it affects your performance follow in the next section.

The Effects of Foam Rolling and How to Do It

Foam rolling provides increases in short term flexibility. It was noted in the research review provided above, that these changes in flexibility appear to only last about 10 minutes.

How long you should foam roll and how many sets of foam rolling you should perform is not as clear in the research.

Because the effects of foam rolling have only been studied in the short term, we'll use it for exactly that, warming up for activity.

We'll rely on 30-60 seconds per area between warm-up sets of exercise so, you have time to immediately perform exercise afterwards to take advantage of the short term changes in flexibility.

To build on our definitions of the differences between mobility and flexibility from earlier, in order to increase mobility, we need to add something to flexibility by including control.

Balance, coordination,control and the ability to produce force through a range of motion are exactly what are required to perform dynamic exercises. Remember, these exercises can also be warm-up sets of the exercises you intend to perform in your session.

If you perform your foam rolling on a muscle group and feel looser, your foam roller has done it's job. You can simply move on from there.

Unlock Your Favorite Ways to Warm Up and Foam Roll

By now, you should know that the point of warming up and foam rolling is to work on mobility and get ready for your runs. Static and PNF stretching is for improving your flexibility when needed.

You'll likely want to lean towards movements that you specifically perform while running.

The big idea behind this process is that there are several different ways to warm up for your exercising or sporting event.

I often start clients off with a default way to do this that considers the areas they're about to train. Once you've learned which way you prefer to warm up, you have the creative freedom to experiment and see if one way works better for you.

Try adding foam rolling to your warm up and see if it helps.

Mix in dynamic exercises to your warm up to see if they help you get ready for your sessions more effectively.

Get out there and share this advice with a fellow runner!

Steven Mack is founder and a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist at the private training studio, Simple Solutions Fitness. He consults for Stronger by Science, a leader in fitness research dissemination, and is a former Mizzou football walk-on. Steven dedicates his professional life to helping people through his writing, speaking, and role as a personal trainer.