Ask anyone who has run, cycled or been to a gym lately and one of the surest pieces of advice you will receive is to stretch your muscles before and after exercise.
However, long, slow static stretching of cold muscles before a workout is now frowned upon by many trainers, who say dynamic stretching such as high kicks is better at warming up the muscles.
But what about after exercise? Many sports specialists recommend a series of static stretches after a run, which serves to lengthen tightened calf and thigh muscles. But an increasing number of experts suggest skipping static stretching and instead using a foam roller, a long cylinder of polyethylene foam that helps you perform self-myofascial release ó or self-massage. The myofascia are connective tissue that surround the muscles.
ìIíve become much more of a devotee of foam rolling,î says Jordan Metzl, a sports medicine physician at New Yorkís Hospital for Special Surgery, and author of a book called Running Strong. ìThe myofascial release is literally like deep tissue massage, which makes the muscle more elastic and lengthens it.î
Dr Metzl has run 29 marathons and participated in 10 Ironman triathlons, so he knows how tight muscles can become after prolonged exercise and the importance of releasing that stiffness. He says research studies involving rolling and stretching tend to show that rolling comes out ahead in terms of flexibility gain and that muscles do not suffer any of the performance loss that stretching causes.
To use a roller, you simply lie across it and move your body back and forth. You know when you hit the right spot ó what osteopaths call a trigger point ó as you tend to feel a needle of pain. But as you roller, the pain tends to diminish.
Foam rollers come in different colours, with white the softest and black the hardest. I advise starting with the softer rollers because the harder ones can cause extreme pain in the connective tissues when you roll them. I am particularly sore when I roller my iliotibial band, the bit that runs from the pelvis down the side of the leg over the hip and connects just below the knee. The iliotibial band is the cause of a very common running injury, which can feel like someone is sticking a screwdriver in your knee.
Dr Metzl has started to recommend a different type of roller, which is usually coloured electric orange. They are hollow and have a hard PVC roller inside covered with a soft shell. ìThey get in very deep, but the softer outer surface is more palatable,î he says.
Dr Metzlís book contains some neat video links that show how to roller different parts of the body. I find it a bit awkward to roller my calves because of supporting my weight on my hands and it can be hard to move forwards and back. Because of this, some doctors recommend a stick roller that can be used on the lower legs while seated. But Dr Metzl says that if you cross one leg over the other, the increased force against a foam roller is better at relieving tightness than the stick roller.
He recommends rolling each area of the body for about a minute each day and following that up with two strength training sessions a week. ìThis is part of the recipe for getting the most juice from your kinetic chain [the sequence of movements involved in exercise], both from a functional and protective point of view,î he says.