Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Do, Try, Skip: Foam Rolling, Group Exercise, Running Music

Do you need music to perform
at your best?
Photo: competitor RUNNING
This series is intended to provide an informative and entertaining look at common practices in endurance sports.  The views expressed here are my opinions based largely on a combination of professional experience as an exercise physiologist and personal experience as an endurance athlete.

Sports training practices change over time.  Looking back a generation (or more) some things seem preposterous now.  But in their day and time they might have been considered cutting edge.  This "Do, Try, Skip" series will look at current popular training practices and provide guidance based on science (if available) and personal experience.  Today we look at three popular training practices; foam rolling, group exercise, and listening to music while running.

Foam Rolling: DO
The practice of foam rolling is something many athletes (myself included) understand to be important but few consistently perform.  Interestingly, the technique may have originated as an inexpensive way for Broadway dancers to simulate deep tissue massage on tight aching muscles.  But the practice was undoubtedly popularized by National Academy of Sports Medicine founder and physical therapist Michael A. Clark.  Referred to as self-myofascial release stretching (SMFR) in his 2002 manual Optimal Performance Training for the Performance Enhancement Specialist the technique is defined as "the process of using bio-foam rollers and/or "The Stick" to improve soft-tissue extensibility".  This type of stretching utilizes the autogenic inhibition theory to correct length and tension imbalances of the muscles.  
Self-Myofascial Release of the TFL.

Autogenic Inhibition
The key to understanding how foam rolling works lies with muscle spindles and Golgi Tendon Organs (GTO).  Muscle spindles lie in parallel with muscle fibers and sense the rate and change of muscle lengthening.  When stimulated they may cause the muscle to contract resulting in "trigger points".  This can occur during times of sudden increases in training volume or new training loads (ie. change of surface or terrain).  A chronically shortened (ie. contracted) muscle not only may cause discomfort, but it is also less effective at producing force and may affect how the other soft-tissues nearby act.  

The GTO is a proprioceptive sensory receptor organ located within the junction between the muscle and the tendon and is highly sensitive to changes in tension and the rate of tension change.  When you use your body weight on the foam roller you are placing tension on the musculotendinous junction of that muscle and stimulating the GTO.  With enough stimulation, the GTO may "turn off" the muscle spindles causing the tight muscle to relax, unwind, or "unknot".  This occurs when the neural impulses sensing tension (from the foam roller) are greater than the impulses causing muscle tension (from the tight muscles).

So when and how do you use the foam roller?
Foam rolling should be seen as a form of stretching.  Specifically as a corrective flexibility modality.  When used to correct muscle imbalances (length & tension) it is best performed in both the pre- and post-workout periods.  To obtain the optimal benefit from the technique place a tolerable amount of body weight pressure on the "tender/trigger points" of the muscle and hold for approximately 30-90 seconds.  This provides adequate time for the GTO to begin to inhibit the target/offending muscle spindles.  It's worth noting that other devices may be used to perform the technique including a lacrosse ball, medicine ball, or other handheld devices.  

IMPORTANT NOTE:  While foam rolling is generally safe, it should not be performed by persons with heart failure, kidney failure, other organ failure, bleeding disorders, or contagious skin disorders.  If you have any doubt whether or not the practice would be safe and appropriate for you, check with your physician first. *From NASM

Group Exercise: TRY
There is little doubt that to improve sport-specific performance you must spend a considerable amount of time performing that sport.  However, the cumulative effects of repetitive movements patterns can result in overuse-associated soft-tissue breakdown and subsequent forced rest.  Two common ways of reducing the frequency and potential impact of repetitive movement patterns are cross-training (ie. cycling for runners and running for cyclists) and complimentary-training practices (ie. strength & mobility training).  While these activities are unquestionably important to the sustained health and performance of an endurance athlete, there are often barriers to participation.  One common barrier is the perception of lack of mastery.  None of us want to look or feel like we don't know what we are doing.  This may be the case for an endurance athlete not familiar with either cross-training or complimentary-training activities.  Here's where friendly and supportive instructor-led group exercise classes fill an incredibly important role.  

Spinning Bikes.
Group exercise can generally be categorized in one of four ways; aerobic, strength, bodymind, and specialty.  All have potential benefit to the endurance athlete.  Let's take a look and some common examples and how they might fit into an endurance training program.

Indoor Cycling (aka. Spinning)
Type: cross-training
Category:  aerobic

While it's always better to be outside rather than inside, indoor instructor led group cycling classes offer runners a non-impact alternative to their high impact sport.  

Type:  cross-training
Category: aerobic

This instructor-led group exercise format is a mix of boxing moves, martial arts, and aerobics that combine to provide a high-intensity training session and is great for cyclists as it gets them out of forward trunk/hip flexion and upright on their feet.  

Orangetheory Fitness®
Type:  cross-training & complimentary-training
Category: aerobic & strength

Led by qualified personal trainers this one hour exercise class uses heart rate to monitor high intensity interval training (aerobic & strength) giving users a targeted and effective training experience.  Because of the use of both aerobic activities (running, cycling, rowing) along with strength exercises it covers both the aerobic and strength categories. 

Type:  complimentary-training
Category:  bodymind

The spiritual element of yoga separates it from most other instructor-led group exercise activities.  And while the bodymind benefits are translatable to all endurance athletes, it's ability to improve mobility may be it's greatest physical benefit.  

Running Music: SKIP
What's a blog without occasionally dipping your toe into a heated debate once in a while?  I am well aware that many runners use music while running to help them either escape from the drudgery or motivate them to push harder.  Both of these rationales are valid yet they don't overcome the overwhelming negatives associated with the practice.  Listening to music while running is considered a dissociative behavior.  That is to say, it's a way to disconnect from the activity.  This disconnection is both mental and physical.  But being connected to the activity provides a wealth of important and immediate feedback that helps to assure the activity is both safe and effective.

Whether on or off-road you are likely to be sharing space with other people.  These people are typically traveling by vehicle, bicycle, or on foot.  In each case there may be a need for you to yield the right of way.  When being approached from behind it is very difficult for you to be fully aware of your surroundings while listening to music.  Portable music devices today are typically quite inconspicuous and may not be noticeable to others around you.  This could lead to a dangerous scenario of an overtaking motorist (on road) or cyclist (on trail) attempting to signal their intent to you but to no avail.  

Your ears provide important feedback while running.  Running economy may be improved, in part, by soft quiet foot strikes.  Listening to music while running makes it impossible to gain this valuable feedback.  Lastly, many running events either discourage or prohibit the use of headphones due to liability concerns.  If you are conditioned to listening to music in training to help you "get through the tough times", you may be at a distinct disadvantage without it during a race.  

Let me be clear, there is a difference between listening to music while running outside versus listening to music while running inside on a treadmill.  Running inside on a treadmill is drudgery and anything you can do to take your mind off of the activity is probably helpful.  Just make sure the music you've selected doesn't get you so fired up that you miss the objective of the workout (ie. easy on easy days or target effort).  

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