The use of foam rollers to ease muscle strain after a hard workout has been around for years. Most boathouse workout areas and gyms have them lined up on a wall next to foam and rubber floor mats. Like stretching, foam rollers are believed to be good for post workout recovery - although maybe not for pre-workout preparation.
A recent study published in the Human Kinetics Journal that tested the use of rollers and self-rolling massages, confirmed some of those same conclusions but also suggested that SMFR (self-myofascial release) can increase athletic performance when used after training, but might not be beneficial if used before training or competition.
The study focused on the effect on endurance performance (in the case of the study, runners) and concluded that use before running "may negatively affect the endurance running performance. Conversely, performing SMFR treatment thee hours before the running performance could be valuable."
The study determined that SMFR could promote increased muscle power, "which may in turn positively affect the running performance." It also determined that the use of rollers is better in some instances than static stretching.
While the testing was conducted mainly with runners in mind, row2k asked one of the study authors, Nicola Giovanelli, PhD of the School of Sport Sciences, University of Udine, in Udine, Italy, if the same positive benefits would be seen by when used by rowers.
"Unlike static stretching, SMFR does not negatively affect muscle power and the use of foam roller and roller massager may positively influence performance, even in rowing. Particularly, it may improve the flexibility and the rate of force development, with a possible increase in performance. Moreover, it may accelerate the recovery after heavy trainings," Giovanelli said.
"Literature suggests that SMFR application time seems important for its effect on muscle function. Short application time (<30 s) seems to have no significant effects on performance. Thus, for SMFR longer applications are suggested, particularly for wide muscles. In rowing, many muscles are activated during the basic stroke (catch, drive, finish and recovery) and the use of foam roller should be emphasized in the majority of them."
To dig even deeper into the use of foam rollers and SMFR for rowers, row2k turned to USRowing's long-time physical therapist Marc Nowak, who has been looking after national team athletes through several Olympic cycles and said he always keeps rollers on hand when he is traveling with the team.
"We've had them around for years," Nowak said. "They've gotten fancier and more expensive. They have ones with ridges, ones that are smooth, and there are now vibration rollers. But you really don't need anything to fancy. And you really don't need to spend all that money. A simple foam roller is fine."
Nowak says he encourages athletes to use them, and not just for self-myofascial massage. Nowak said they are good for relaxing the back and joint mobilization, "like on the spine. I probably use them for that more than anything."
Just as a way of stretching after a row, Nowak has athletes lie on their back with a roller under them and just have them hang their arms over their heads toward the floor, "and just let gravity do the work, just stretch out your pecs. Or do snow angels. It's a nice way of unleashing tissue after a workout
"I also use them as a balance tool when doing bridging and doing single leg raises with your foot on the foam roll. It gives you some instability and gives you more core work than if you do it on the floor."
Nowak said that using rollers, "or doing any type of myofascial work, is good. You can do it manually, with a massage stick or a foam roller. Vibration also works well and it's a lot less uncomfortable. The little vibration devices that are out there are really good at calming tissue damage and getting blood flow back.
But Nowak also wanted to throw in some common-sense advice – foam rollers or self-myofascial work is good for recovery and in use in training, but it will not heal a serious issue. "With any type of self-modality, if there is a bigger underlying issue it offers temporary relief of tension or discomfort, but it just comes right back," he said. "It's only going to do so much.
"If within a week, something is still bothering you, go seek help. Don't try deal with it yourself. And that's a real common thing. People think, this will go away by itself, I can manage this. More is always better, particularly in rowers. Seek help.
"You may have some kind of acute problem, and the foam roller may give you some kind of temporary relief, so you just keep going back to it more and more to give you that temporary relief and it's really not solving anything," he said.
"If there is pain, or an issue and it's been there more than a week, then you need help."