There are lots of theories relating to flexibility training for power and strength. A large part of this is self-myofascial release, which is achieved through the use of a foam roller. The application of an ischemic pressure, as seen when using a foam roller, is thought to release adhesions in soft tissue through the stimulation of sensory-motor receptors in muscle and connective tissue. However, there needs to be some consideration given to the timing of foam rolling if the application is going to be of use.
It is suggested by most training authorities that the use of foam rolling combined with static stretching is an effective protocol for the release of tight structures, thus reprogramming the dysfunctional, tight, tissue length (Huguenin, 2004). However, few researchers have identified whether the timing of application can have a negative effect on performance, particularly power.
Why do we use foam rolling and what is self-myofascial release?
Fascia is a dense connective tissue that fulfils a role as a structural support in movement and function. Ubiquitous in nature; it surrounds every muscle, bone, nerve, blood vessel and organ, like a continuous web (Barnes, 1997; Schleip, 2012). What was once thought to be a relatively inert collagenous tissue is now regarded as an intricate network of cells rich in sensory receptors (van der Wal, 2009). When this tissue is damaged or overloaded, it can lead to trigger point formation which is often associated with pain and decreased performance.
Trigger points are defined as hyperirritable point associated with a taut band of muscle that can be painful on compression or stretch (Simons et al, 1999). They can result in a restriction to range of motion, muscular fatigue within localised tissues and often referred pain elsewhere (Penas & Campo et al, 2003).
Theories relating to the development of trigger point formation hypothesize that an increased tissue demand (seen through overload or trauma) results in prolonged shortening of the tissue and a restriction to circulation (and therefore oxygen), leaving the cells unable to produce enough energy to allow for relaxation of the tissue (Huguenin, 2003). This alteration to the metabolic state of the tissue is thought to be the key to the sensitization and stimulation of sensory receptors such as pain receptors, often making the tissue more sensitive to load and temperature changes as well as increased pain sensitivity, early fatigue, poor recovery and mechanical changes such as altered length tension relationships (Huguenin, 2003). This is detrimental to performance.
The term length tension relationship describes the resting length of a muscle and the tension it can produce at its resting length. To optimize the potential tension or pull of the muscle, the muscle has an optimal length, whereby the contractile filaments are able to make the maximal amount of connection (Watkins, 1999; Clark & Lucett, 2010). Poor length tension relationships can impede the force production and/or tension properties of the muscle as well as joint stability and position sense (Richards, 2008), often causing a decrease in power output, high fatigability and increased injury risk.
During the application of foam rolling and stretching techniques, it is the Golgi tendon organ and muscle spindle mechano-receptors that elicit the sought after response. The Golgi tendon organ (GTO) is a mechanoreceptor found in the tendon and musculotendinous junction of the muscle and its associated fascia (Schleip, 2003). The role of the GTO is to sense changes in tension within the tissue which when stimulated, results in the inhibition of the muscle spindle (the mechanoreceptor that detects length changes in the muscle) allowing for muscle relaxation (Goodges & MacRae et al, 1989). This is otherwise known as autogenic inhibition (Clark & Lucett, 2010).
In complex activities such as the Olympic snatch, which require a greater degree of hip and knee flexion, dysfunction could be a root cause of injury and/or performance limitations.
The movement pattern of the Olympic snatch requires the athlete to drop below the accelerating bar in order to stabilize and decelerate the moving weight. To do this, the feet are required to maintain full contact with the floor as the lower limb joints move into flexion. A limitation to dorsiflexion and/or inhibited hip stability may result in an inability to do so and therefore, an inability to maintain stability of the bar overhead during the catch position (Minick, Kiesel and Burton et al, 2010).
According to the literature published by Ireland (1999) and Decker et al (2003), if an athlete is unable to obtain optimal dorsiflexion and/or hip stability, they may demonstrate poor mechanics such as excessive foot pronation (unwanted rotation of the foot), knee valgus (the knees dropping inward) and/or excessive forward lean as a compensatory measure for a fault elsewhere. This, as argued by Ireland (1999) is an injury risk factor for common non contact injuries such as ACL disruption.
In the example of non-contact ACL disruption, the ACL is unable to stabilize a rapidly decelerating knee in response to poor control of the hip complex. It has thus been labelled as a position of vulnerability due to poor ankle dorsiflexion, excessive pronation of the foot and inhibition of hip stabilizers such as the gluteus medius.
Programming for Performance
It is widely understood that some methods of flexibility training can reduce sports performance (Marek & Cramer et al, 2005). Stimulation of the GTO and therefore subsequent inhibition of the muscle spindle will allow for a change in resting tissue length. However, static stretching can cause damage to muscle spindle receptors as well as causing an acute reduction in power and joint position sense. This can increase the risk of instability-related injury and poor performance. The same could be said for foam rolling, which initiates a similar response within the nerve pathways. Therefore, it is thought that a pre-workout foam rolling session could also negatively affect performance, although this has not yet been identified by research.
As well as nerve and tissue response, it is important to consider the individual implications of the pain response. Pain is regarded by the brain as a perception of danger (Butler & Mosely, 2003). It dictates an immediate response from the centralized and peripheral structures of the nervous system, stimulating a noxious (painful) and inhibitory response that results in changes to localized tissue structures (through protective mechanisms such as spasm). As well as this, there are changes to local and global hormone distributions (think of the fight or flight response) and desensitization of sensory input (Chapman & Tucket et al, 2009). The direct application of a painful stimulus may create a localized spasm or worse, an unwanted inhibition response that could reduce power and performance factors by decreasing stability and joint awareness as well as muscle activation.
What to consider when using the foam roller?
1. Why are you using the foam roller? If it’s because of a genuine tissue restriction, then the foam roller is an important tool, but if tissue is restricted because of either inflammation or fatigue, it may be worth considering other options first as a direct, painful pressure may elongate the release of inflammatory markers, thus hindering recovery and cellular growth/tissue repair.
2. Don’t forget the basics. As effective as foam rolling and flexibility training may be, it can be hindered by poor diet, inadequate sleep and dehydration. The metabolic status of the tissue will influence the response you get when using a foam roller and when recovering from training, so if you are going to foam roll, remember to get the basics right first.
3. Is it okay to foam roll pre workout? Pain perception is a very individual process based on that person’s previous experiences as well as current metabolic status. Therefore, one person’s response can be totally different to another’s. This also goes for the response to acute tissue changes (such as the release of tight tissue) although in most cases, mechano-receptors are initially inhibited following a release treatment. In order to identify when exactly to foam roll, it is important to base it on subjective response, i.e., if you’ve had a bad session lifting, had you foam rolled and/or stretched that day? And how close to the session did you foam roll? It may be more appropriate to consider using a foam roll strategy two to three hours before a lifting session to allow the body to respond to the changes in tissue length and appropriate the required nerve activity.
4. Is it okay to foam roll post-workout? The physiological response to exercise-induced tissue damage is inflammation (Calle & Fernandez, 2010). The amount of tissue damage caused varies depending on the type of activity, intensity, duration, training status and recovery. In the acute post-training stages, inflammation occurs as a protective response to tissue damage that can cause pain, discomfort and tissue restriction. The response is almost immediate as the site of tissue damage is flooded with neutrophils (white blood cells that remove bacteria), which can remain present for up to 24 hours (Peak & Nosaka et al, 2005).
Over time, the body becomes more adept at responding to the demand of regular strength training, however, if the overall objective of the training session has induced an overload effect (i.e. it has acted as a stressor to the body), there will still be an acute inflammatory reaction as part of the growth and repair response. The presence of inflammation may induce local spasm as well as stimulating the pain receptors within the tissue. As this is the case, it may well be counter-productive to use a foam roll/stretch protocol directly post-workout due to the presence of inflammation (and local spasm) and the change to sensory perception/nerve feedback. In other words, the introduction of another noxious stimulus post workout (such as foam rolling) may further irritate an already hypersensitized nerve pathway, which could prolong the inflammatory response and pain cycle.
5. What to do after you’ve foam rolled? Although you may see initial ROM gains following a session on the foam roller, those gains can often be short-lived unless followed with some form of stretch protocol. If you know that flexibility is an issue, static stretching can be beneficial for eliciting more long term gains in flexibility. However, it can also hinder performance if, like foam rolling, it is applied too close to a training session. This being the case, it is recommended that static stretching be only used pre-workout when movement dysfunction negates a loss in power; otherwise, it is better to use a form of active stretching. If a foam roll and static stretch sequence is required pre-workout, it should be followed with some form of active isolated activity such as a neuromuscular facilitation stretch in order to stimulate neural activity.
Although there is a substantial amount of research in favor of foam rolling, there is little evidence in research that suggests when to foam roll. In any case, application should be subjective in terms of your personal needs and how you respond to its use.
Based on the principles outlined above, it may be more effective to plan foam rolling sessions at times of active recovery and/or within a two to three-hour window before a training session or 24 hours post. If that is something you are unable to do or you have a tissue restriction which demands that you foam roll pre-workout, follow up with an active stretch and active-isolated exercise to stimulate the right nerve actions.
Most importantly, monitor your response to foam rolling as, quite possibly, it may be the thing hindering your power and overall training output.
Jenni Wilson (MSc BSc [hons] PES MSST) is a trained sports therapist and rehabilitation specialist. In addition to working clinically, she lectures on the Sport Science degree programmes for the University of Surrey. Her background is in injury rehabilitation, but she also specializes in myofascial therapy, soft tissue release and sports massage, she can be emailed @email@example.com
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