Stretching vs Foam Rolling: Which is better and when to do what
Summer is warming up….are you?
I know it’s hard to carve time out of your busy day for a workout, so it is easy to want to skip the warm-up and cool-down in an attempt to squeeze as much workout into as little time as possible; especially if you “aren’t injured.” But, whether or not you are managing an injury, and regardless of your current exercise and activity routine, spending a few minutes before and after your workout on a good warm-up and cool-down can seriously reduce your risk of getting hurt AND will also increase the effectiveness of your other exercise efforts. So, if you were thinking that those minutes were better spent on the extra mile or two, or the few extra sets and reps, think again.
That said, all warm-ups and cool-downs were not created equally, it’s important to know what you are doing and why you are doing it in order to make those minutes the most useful to you. So let’s talk about stretching: dynamic versus static, and what foam rolling has to do with it.
Stretching focuses on improving range of motion by specifically addressing tissue length and flexibility. The two types of stretching, dynamic and static, can mean very different things for both your body and your workout. So let’s discuss them separately.
Dynamic stretching takes your joints and muscles through their full range of motion in a steady and controlled manner: think arm circles, walking lunges, high knees, and russian soldier walks. In addition to improving range of motion, dynamic stretching helps to increase heart rate and blood flow to the tissues, which warms them up and makes them more pliable. This increased blood flow is also how your body begins delivering the nutrients your muscles need for work. Studies have shown that dynamic stretching can help boost power, anaerobic performance, and speed in the rest of your workout. If you think of muscle like a rubber band, the warmer it is, the easier it is to stretch out; and, the further you stretch a rubber band, the more energy it has to quickly and powerfully snap back to its original length.
Static stretching, on the other hand, takes a muscle to its end range and then passively holds it in that position to create increased length. Thinking about a rubber band again, the longer it stays in a stretched position, or the more often you have it stretched out, the more likely you are to permanently change its resting length. This works similarly with your muscles; frequent and prolonged stretching is required to make lasting changes in the length of short or tight muscles. After a work-out, static stretching can help flush waste products created by muscle contraction and help prevent them from tightening up in a shortened position.
However, recent studies have indicated that doing prolonged static stretching may also temporarily reduce muscle strength and power temporarily, which wouldn’t be desirable before a workout regardless of what your activity is, so best to save this kind of stretching for after a workout. To make the most of your time, target the main muscles used during your exercise, and muscles that you know are short or tight (Lookin’ at you Hamstrings….)
The benefits of foam rolling and stretching share significant overlap, but with a few important differences. Foam rolling can be effective both before and after a workout. The mechanical action as well as physical effort of foam rolling can help improve blood flow; before a workout this will make muscles and other tissues more pliable and improve nutrient delivery, post exercise this can help decrease waste product build-up and post workout soreness (which can help you perform better during later workout sessions since you won’t be as likely to have compensations or poor mechanics related to pain).
Foam rolling may also help to release tension or adhesions between tissue layers or tissue fibers via thixotropic properties (Word. Of. The. Day. It means that movement changes the viscosity and equilibrium of the tissues) Because of this, rolling can make any stretching you do more effective and often leads to a feeling of muscle relaxation. It is important to note, however, that foam rolling alone is not likely to change the length of shortened muscles, or physically deform tendon or fascia. Due to the composition of these tissues, the force necessary to achieve that is just not occurring with foam rolling. If you think of fascia as a sheet, foam rolling won’t be able to change the shape or size of the sheet, but it could allow that sheet to move more easily around the other tissues.
There may be additional pain-relief benefits to foam rolling due to interaction of slow rhythmic movement and diaphragmatic breathing with the nervous system; however, if you are smashing away with your foam roll, you may be sensitizing pain receptors and actually affecting the nervous system in a negative way. So, while sore muscles may be tender to roll, foam rolling should not be painful.
Warm-up: 5-10 minutes of foam rolling and/or dynamic stretching. If you have time to do both, foam rolling first will help get more from your dynamic stretching. If you only have time for one, do the dynamic activity to prep for exercise. Do not do static stretching.
Cool-down: 10-15 min of foam rolling and/or static stretching. If you have time for both, stretch first that way the muscles will still be as warm and pliable as possible while taking them to their end range. If you only have time to do one, do the one that best matches your goals. Both will help decrease delayed onset soreness and keep tissues mobile. Foam rolling (done correctly) will decrease nervous system sensitivity and improve blood flow, while consistent static stretching can help create plastic changes in muscle tissue length.
Warm-up, Cool-down, and Foam Rolling should all be Pain Free.
Regardless of what you choose to do, make sure you understand what you are doing, and why.