It’s popular, but does it work? This is the big question with self-myofascial release (SMR) – which is most commonly done with foam rollers. The only thing I can tell you for sure is that those who believe SMR is worthless and those who believe it is a cure-all are equally incorrect. Both of these types of individuals have allowed their ideology to limit their methodology.
The reason there is so much disagreement is that there is very little definitive information to draw from current research. It does appear, however, that there are two main potential benefits to performing SMR during a warm-up:
- Acutely reduce arterial stiffness, improve arterial function and improve vascular endothelial function
- Improve joint range-of-motion (ROM) without the risk of reducing neuromuscular performance
I will briefly discuss these then show you some specific exercises I have used with many of my running clients to help them enjoy more comfortable running with less pain.
First, it’s important to note that there are numerous studies seeking to measure whether SMR improves performance. And this, in my opinion, is a flaw in the design of many of the studies. We know unequivocally that proper training (i.e., stress) is what improves performance.
Improving endothelial function presents significant benefits to a runner (and any human.) Endothelial cells line the walls of your vascular system and enable your pipes to smoothly expand and contract as more or less blood flow is needed. This presents a great benefit for proper circulation and, therefore, oxygen delivery to muscles and the clearing away of waste products when running.
Next, better joint range of motion presents an immediate opportunity for a more comfortable running experience because it gives the muscles more distance to slow down forces. If you were driving your car and needed to stop, you could either wait until the last second and stomp on the brakes, or you could begin braking at the optimal distance to slow down forces effectively while not overstressing your brakes. Better range-of-motion while running gives you a greater distance through which to produce and slow down forces with every stride, which makes the experience less jarring. It also allows the muscles to do more work to lessen stress on joints.
When it comes to how SMR provides these benefits, the mechanism you hear the least about is increased hydration. Performing SMR squeezes the tissues; picture squeezing a sponge underwater—when you release the pressure, the sponge immediately rehydrates and draws in new fluid.
My main interest in using SMR is to make performance less stressful to the body’s tissues and/or aid in recovery. There are only a few studies on using SMR for warm-ups, but even then the studies often look for improvements in performance (jump higher, etc.) during the subsequent workout.
As I mentioned above, the main benefit of using SMR is to help the body accommodate the forces and stresses of training. It helps you dissipate forces upward (through the whole body), rather than outward (through only the lower body joints).
Here are some exercises I have found to be very effective with runners of varying ages and abilities. For best results, perform these before your dynamic warm-up prior to your run. This will result in better blow flow and tissue hydration prior to your dynamic warm-up, which has the potential to make that more effective.
Do not linger on any tender areas with these exercises when using them in your warm-up. We want to keep the pressure and the body moving. Movement creates a pumping action of the muscles to enhance blood flow and the creation and releasing of pressure will increase local tissue hydration.
The goal here is continuous movement – of your body over the roller in general and of the joint in particular.
Outer Thigh with Knee Flexion
Front of Thigh with Knee Flexion
Practical Considerations: If necessary, you can do all of these with a tennis ball and then simply hold the ball in your hand on your run. The tools used here are of tremendous benefit and convenience but lack of access to them should not limit participation. These techniques are not about the tools, but about the methodology.
- Travel Roller
- The Stick / SPRI Tiger Tail
- Massage Ball / Tennis Ball / Lacrosse Ball
- Trigger Point Therapy Tools
MacDonald, et al., 2013
Healey, et al., 2013
Okamoto, et al., 2013
MacDonald, et al., 2012
*Special thanks to the staff of Lululemon – Annapolis for their assistance with the videos.