Sunday, September 29, 2013

Is Your Foam Roller Your Friend?

It should be! So, I have to confess, I have a new lasting relationship over the last few years, and it’s not with any human being; it’s with my foam roller. So, before I was going to write to all of you to tell you how great it is, I thought I should do some evidence-based medicine, and see what’s out there on the subject. But let’s start simple:

What exactly is myofascial release?

Are you new to this “fad” in training and conditioning? Don’t worry. That’s why I’m writing this blog! J It’s becoming more of a growing accessory to training. Somatic dysfunction can cause pain and restriction of motion. When you train intensely or when you work muscles that have not been used in a while (it happens, right, when we’re trying to get back into working out and then all the sudden the next day or the day afterward you wonder why you thought that it was such a good idea to start back with a full body lift at the weights you had done 6 months ago when you were training consistently), you end up with tighter muscles. 

The overlying soft tissue component that encases the muscles in your body is surrounded by fascia, connective tissue that supports your muscles. It’s awesome stuff, but it can get a little angry at you when there is inflammation. So there’s a form of soft tissue therapy that people are now using (and some would argue that it has existed in a certain form since the invention of massage techniques—whenever that was) to treat somatic dysfunction and prevent pain and restriction of motion.

Passive myofascial techniques include techniques when the patient stays completely relaxed. This would be if someone else is providing the myofascial pressure—this can be done with pressure points, with connective tissue massage, etc.  On the other hand, active myofascial techniques include techniques when the patient provides resistance as necessary, so foam rolling, active release therapy (ART), and strain-counterstrain techniques would fall under this category.

How does it work?

A study out of Japan that was published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning earlier this year showed that self myofascial release techniques using a foam roller actually reduce arterial stiffness and improve vascular endothelial function. And what muscles need in order to perform at their best and also recover at their best is blood flow with adequate endothelial function to deliver nutrients and remove toxic chemicals. Amazing stuff!

So, do studies support that this stuff really works?

Myofascial release is something that entered the world of medicine through osteopathic medicine and complementary or alternative medicine (one could argue that acupuncture is even a varied form of this) and has now become the new trend in sports training over the last 10 years. But what studies have been done to support its use for athletes and the every-day healthful exerciser?

Guess what? Not a lot is very conclusive! In 2013, the Journal of Strength and Conditioning did a study on foam rolling and performance. They found no significant effect of foam rolling on actual performance of athletic maneuvers in comparison with the control group. However, they did find that post-exercise fatigue after foam rolling was significantly less than after the control group. The conclusion they came to was that the reduced feeling of fatigue when using foam rolling may allow athletes to extend acute workout time and volume, which can lead to chronic performance enhancement. So it hasn’t exactly been proven in the literature.

What do I think?

I think it’s awesome. I didn’t get it into until I started triathlon and realized that biking hard one day and running hard the next was giving me crazy knots in my quads. Foam rolling saved me. And then I started training smarter, got some better training plans in terms of coordinating workouts effectively, and I still realized that a foam roller either at the end of the day with stretching or pre-workout really helped maximize my ability to achieve the results that I wanted. It makes me wonder, what if we had known about this when we were playing college basketball back in the day?

The stuff that’s out there on the market:

Foam roller

The stick

How to use it:

Limit your foam rolling or whatever your chosen technique is to 30 seconds on each muscle, especially if you’re using an injured one. It’s like stretching in that regard; you don’t want to overdo it. The stick is good but doesn’t work for gluts and back unless you have a very loving training partner who’s willing to help you out. You can reach almost every muscle of interest with your foam roller, and you can use your body to help add the amount of pressure that you can tolerate.

Your IT bands and whatever other area of interest will scream bloody murder at you while you’re rolling, but later on, trust me, your body will thank you and give you the present of happier muscles and a stronger workout or competition, whatever you’re going for. I would argue that myofascial release has become the new ballistic stretching pre-workout, and I have to say, when part of a dynamic warm-up, it can’t be beat. It’s also a great addition to your agility workouts and to your flexibility routine if you have one (and you should).

For more ways to warm-up, cool-down, and stay fit in between, ask your trainer, ask your coach, ask my husband. ;) But that’s the science and the anecdotal evidence, folks. My advice? Just try it, and see how you feel! J

Healey KC, Hatfield DL, et al. “The Effects of Myofascial Release with Foam Rolling on Performance.” J Strength Cond Res 2013 Apr 12.
Okamoto T, Masuhara M, Ikuta K. “Acute Effects of Self-Myofascial Release Using a Foam Roller on Arterial Function. J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Apr 9.
Lin MT, Chou LW, et al. “Percutaneous soft tissue release for treating chronic recurrent myofascial pain associated with lateral epicondylitis: 6 case studies.” Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2012 Dec 2.
Roach S, Sorenson E, et al. “Prevalence of myofascial trigger points in the hip in patellofemoral pain.” Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2013 Mar;94(3): 522-6.