Foam rolling has become a phenomenon within gyms and fitness classes. The days of a quick old stretch before and after exercise have gone. Most of us now we consider stretching a large part of our routines. As the technology of foam rolling has progressed, so has our appetite for better forms of foam rolling. One of the first to take over the market is vibration foam rolling. Literally, the foam roller vibrates as you glide over the top of the device.
Pulserollhave been inspirational in this field serving famous athletes such as boxer Anthony Crolla, Olympic sprinters Andy Robertson and Harry Aikines-Aryeetey, and tennis players like Jamie Murray.
First, as an overview of foam rolling, what does it do to the body and how does it improve recovery?
Research investigating the effects of Foam rolling/massage is mixed in both quality and results.
Generally studies include objective / subjective measures that focuss on four areas as a means of determining whether these are valid ergogenic aids for athletes/ fitness enthusiasts.
1. Self Myofascial release (SMR) - Fascia is a tough connective tissue encloses and supports various tissues within the body. It often becomes shortened or tighter when regularly exercising. These Fibrous adhesions form in response to injury, exercise, inactivity, or inflammation, the extra tension on the surrounding tissue causes biomechnical imbalances which are painful decrease soft-tissue extensibility, and prevent normal muscle mechanics.
Myofascial release (MFR), usually in the form of massage, has been used to treat soft tissue adhesions, alleviate pain, and reduce tissue tenderness, edema, and inflammation while improving muscle recovery. SelfMR is a technique similar to MFR where individuals use their own body mass on a foam roller or self administer via a roller massager to exert pressure on the affected soft tissues, eliminating the need for massage from another professional.
Studies that report effectiveness tend to measure using subjective scoring. For example participants would report 'less muscle soreness' post foam roller versus control groups.
2. Range of Motion (ROM) - There is evidence that foam rolling / massage can increase joint ROM. Tends to be measured more objectively with accurate equipment. Increasing ROM is advantageous in that it reduces injury risk and improves muscle performance.
3. Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS/EIMD) - After hard or novel exercise athletes can suffer from painful muscles that delay return to training, interrupting that all important consistency. Studies report reduced pain scores, improved performance in strength based tasks and greater ROM.
4. Performance - Sometimes the underlying mechanisms is not the focus of the study, rather the outcome! Many studies report improved performance in strength based tasks IE vertical jump height
When and how many times should we foam roll?
Before or after exercise has been shown to be effective. No real consensus exists at present, but most research suggest applications for a short as 1-3 minutes and as long as 10-20 min bouts daily are most effective. Technique is important and rotation of muscle groups.
What typical exercises should we do as a runner?
Any training session should have careful thought out rationale. Depending on why you are undertaking the foam roller session would in some way determine the most effective exercises. Pre training you might want to target those big leg muscles to improve performance during the session (glutes/hamstrings/ calves/ quads). After training you might target those same muscles again to speed up recovery, but also work on other parts of the body that are important for maintaining good biomechanics and muscle health - planter fascia / lower back as an example.
What typical exercises should we do as a cyclist?
An effective plan should target those key muscles that are most active in your chosen sport. Cycling is mostly lower body, so a big focus should target those big leg muscles- glutes/hamstings/quads/calves. That said if you are undertaking high volume rides (long hours in the saddle) or competing in CX/MTB then the upper body muscles can become fatigued too. Sessions that target the lower and upper back muscles - trapezius / lats and even the neck will really help with overall wellbeing and performance.
Is a vibrating foam roller better?
Firstly; To understand this we need to summarise the research into vibration alone. Vibration therapy (VT) techniques are popular interventions that have been used by health professionals and fitness enthusiasts as part of training programs for 3-4 decades. Most recently we will all be familiar with the vibration machines in local gyms. These usually have a vibrating plate with variable settings that you apply a body part to. Many studies have been undertaken into the effects of vibration using these machines which administer VT to the whole body. Research has shown VT to enhance strength and power, increase blood flow and ROM in the muscle and reduce soreness (EIMD/DOM). Studies in laboratories using large cumbersome equipment which administer the VT locally (usually a hand held device or foam roller) also report significant positive results.
A large body of VT research has focussed on the increase in blood flow and oxygenation that the VT reports to enhance and the attenuating effects this has on EIMD/DOMS. Good evidence exists to say ' VT enhances blood flow (and thus oxygenation) to the muscle'
Secondly; A huge amount of research into the effects of EIMD/DOMS has been undertaken over the years. Although no consensus exists into the actual aetiology, a large body of research has focussed on the blood flow and oxygenation to the affected muscle. In summary, post EIMD/DOMS, it appears that the small blood vessels that service the muscle become damaged in some way.
So if VT can potentially increase blood flow / oxygenation to muscles, could it attenuate the effects of EIMD/DOMS?
The advent of small portable vibrating foam rollers has enabled athletes to self administer VT at home.
Why does vibration foam rolling affect DOMS?
Overall the findings of a recent study (mine if you want to link / embed in article ?) support the theory that EIMD/DOMS disrupts the normal flow of blood and thus oxygen delivery to the muscle. EIMD/DOMS also reduces performance in strength-based tasks, the effects of which can manifest within 60 minutes and last up to 48 hours later. Good evidence from the study suggests that local VT attenuated this micro-vascular damage attributed to EIMD, thus improving blood flow and oxygen delivery through increased vasodilation. Local VT appears to also attenuate the acute strength loss associated with EIMD.
Why does vibration foam rolling increase blood flow and oxygen saturation, what is the mechanism?
We believe this could increase the delivery of oxygen to the exercised tissue, assist in the removal of metabolic waste and thus improve muscle performance.
How do we choose a vibrating foam roller?
No scientific consensus here, but we can answer this with a common sense approach. Technique and timing are most important
Length - Consider the long flat rollers for large muscles IE legs/quads. Pulse roll have an extra long one for treatment of both legs simultaneously, or for athletes with bigger legs IE RUGBY giants !
Hardness - I would suggest they need to be hard otherwise the vibration would be dissipated and less effective.
Pattern - The superficial pattern to my knowledge would not be so important, but some uneven pattern could help with basic release/breakdown. The delivery of vibration is more important.
When should we choose a peanut foam roller?
Highly portable- great for travel. Best for administering into muscles of the upper and lower back and smaller muscles in general, neck, calf, arm. Deeper massage into bigger muscles.
When should we choose a low versus a high vibration setting?
Most recent well designed studies recommended that an intervention of local VT at a frequency between 15-50Hz, less evidence exists for the timing but most studies used a range of 3-15 minutes. Our pulse roll study used 45Hz for a duration of 10 minutes post training (this is setting 2 of 4) This was repeated every 8 hours.
Stuart has given us some great detail on foam rolling, if you are interested to learn more about him, please visit SunSport Coaching.
To buy a vibration foam roller please check out the links below:
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