The popularity of self-myofascial release (SMR), otherwise known as “foam rolling,” has skyrocketed in the last decade. Due to this growth, the practice has become a relatively common and practical method for increasing flexibility and performance in many fitness and performance industries. This growth has spawned a surplus of research focused on how and why foam rolling works. Currently, there are two leading theories regarding the effects of foam rolling: a) to affect local tissue and b) to affect the nervous system.
Local tissue effects
The pressure from the foam roller affects the local tissues (i.e. the fascial layers) and is thought to change the viscoelastic properties of the tissue by mechanisms such as reduced viscosity, reducing “knots and “adhesions,” increased tissue hydration, and cellular responses. In short, these changes improve blood flow and hydration, and mobility between the tissues and extensibility of the tissues. Simply rolling the lower body muscles before a run, even for only five to 10 seconds each, may lead to an immediate improvement in range of motion and performance.
Nervous system effect
Holding sustained pressure for a period stimulates the autonomic nervous system (ANS) via the Golgi tendon reflex and mechanoreceptor stimulation . This ANS activation increases overall relaxation and tension, leading to better flexibility and range of motion.
A common question is, “why would I want to relax the body before running?” The relaxation we speak of here is not the same as one might experience in a total body massage. Think of it as more of a calming down effect to focus on the upcoming event rather than preparing for a nap. Further, foam rolling should be combined with other stretching methods for the best results. Thus, when using foam rolling before a run, follow it up with a few static stretches (only on muscle groups that are short and tight) and then a few dynamic stretching exercises to get the nervous system back engaged and ready for the task at hand.
Foam rolling training variables
Research is slowly growing to provide some insight into the duration and frequency of rolling programs. To date, researchers have found that rolling for as little as 10 seconds and up to two minutes can be beneficial. A general rule, based on a survey of fitness industry experts, is to roll between 90 and 120 seconds.
Similarly, the research regarding the frequency of foam rolling is not aligned. Rolling twice per week for eight weeks led to improvements in functional movements and sit-n-scores i.e. the sit and reach test. However, rolling five times in only seven days also improved functional patterns and range of motion. Thus, a general rule is to use the foam roller on most days per week if possible.
As a runner, you should make recovery as important as the rest of your training. Recovery can take on a few different forms, but foam rolling is a practical, effective, and affordable method to use regularly.
Foam Rolling Program
Foam rolling programs should be goal specific. If the goal is to improve a movement pattern, then the rolling program should be based on movement assessment findings. This will ensure that the user targets specific areas rather than randomly rolling whatever they feel is tight. However, if the goal is to get the entire body warmed up, then a general approach can be taken.
Running is a total body sport; thus, a total body program may be ideal. Many different muscle groups could be targeted with a roller for runners; however, five key areas emerge as being vital to running success.
1- Calf Complex – improves ankle movement and stability – Calf SMR
2- Quadriceps and Hip flexor – improves knee and hip movement and stability. Make sure to roll up to the crease of the hip to get hip flexors. Quad SMR
3- Hamstrings – improves knee and hip movement and stability – SMR Hamstrings
4- Gluteal Complex – improves hip movement and stability – SMR Glutes/Piriformis
5- Thoracic Spine – improves rotation in the upper body for better force transmission – SMR Thoracic Spine
Begin at the bottom and roll the entire area slowly. Note any tender spots and go back and hold pressure on those spots for 30 seconds. Next, if comfortable, move the joint for four to five repetitions (e.g., when rolling the quadriceps, perform four to five knee bends). Lastly, roll the entire length four to five times (slowly) to bring blood and oxygen back to the tissues.
Images taken from Kyle Stull’s Complete Guide to Foam Rolling, reprinted with permission from Human Kinetics Canada.
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